It was March 17, the day after the Atlanta spa shooting, and a national wave of violence against Asian Americans seemed to be sweeping the streets of San Francisco.
Steven Jenkins, a 39-year-old homeless man with a long history of serious mental illness, was arrested on charges of assaulting two Asian residents, including a 75-year-old woman who, according to the headlines flashed all over the world, had fought valiantly against her attacker.
The job of defending Jenkins fell to Eric McBurney, a Taiwan-born attorney in the San Francisco Public Defender's Office. Within days, McBurney's email inbox filled with hateful messages wondering why, as an Asian American, he was defending someone accused of such a horrific attack on Asians.
When I met McBurney for coffee this week, he told me he understood what he was dealing with in this case when his own relatives in Taiwan read about it in the Chinese press and criticized him for taking it on.
"How does this man get a fair trial?" McBurney asked about his client.
In the months since the attack, McBurney has battled public opinion and what he described as a false story. He argues that the attack involving his client does not depend on racial hatred, but on mental illness and the often rough and chaotic street conditions of homeless people in San Francisco.
"This case has nothing to do with anti-Asian hatred," McBurney said. "Mr. Jenkins has had an average of five mental illnesses a year for the past five years."
"His spirit is broken."
The attacks Jenkins is accused of came amid a series of high-profile attacks on Asian people. Six of the eight killed in the Atlanta shooting were of Asian descent. Earlier that week, a man was arrested in San Francisco on charges of assaulting Danny Yu Chang, a 59-year-old travel agent from the Philippines who was returning to his office after lunch. Two months earlier, a 19-year-old man was charged with fatally pushing a Thai man, an attack captured on video that sowed fear in the Asian community in the Bay Area.
The coronavirus and former President Donald J. Trump's insults about the "Kung flu" unleashed an outright hatred of Asian Americans, thousands of examples of which have been documented across the country by activist groups.
The family of Xiao Zhen Xie, the woman who was attacked by Jenkins, raised more than $1 million through a GoFundMe page. Most of the money will be donated to a non-profit organization that has helped the family set up to help victims of hate crime.
"She has been badly affected mentally, physically and emotionally," her family wrote. "She also stated that from now on she is afraid to leave her house."
Experts have said that while the pain and fear of being targeted because they are Asian is legitimate and needs to be addressed, it is often impossible to analyze the specific motivations of attackers.
In an unusual attempt to dispel the idea that his client was acting out of hate, McBurney released a seven-minute video with the attack on Xie and the moments that preceded it.
On the day of the attacks, Jenkins, who has been homeless for a decade, mingled among the tents and belongings of the displaced at U.N. Plaza. Security camera footage shows Jenkins being punched and kicked dozens of times by some unknown assailants, attacks McBurney describes as unprovoked.
An attacker in a bright yellow vest appears to get two right hooks in Jenkins's face, then follows him down a sidewalk in Market Street. Jenkins staggers, turns and waves. He punches Xie, who is standing on a street corner, in the face.
Jenkins is tackled by a guard and lies on the ground when Xie Jenkins' feet with a wooden plank, the video shows. Not captured in the footage was another attack allegedly committed by Jenkins on Ngoc Pham, an 83-year-old Vietnamese man.
On the day of the attack, the first images streaming around the world showed Jenkins on a stretcher with a bloody face and Xie nearby with a wooden plank. The story of the elderly Asian woman who fought back was born.
McBurney, who was adopted by a white family as a teenager, says he understands racism against Asians. He said he felt it firsthand during his childhood in small towns in the south.
“I grew up in cities where I am the entire Asian population,” he said. "You always feel like you don't belong."
McBurney, 48, spent two decades working bus and waiting tables, yard work and other odd jobs before developing a passion for literature and the law. He has a master's degree in English Literature from the University of Utah and attended the University of Iowa College of Law on a full scholarship.
I asked him how he dealt with the hate mail from other Asian Americans and the disapproval, even from his extended family in Taiwan.
'I love it,' McBurney quickly fired back. "It's an extra motivation."
"It's when the whole world is against your client, that's when a public defender says, 'Yeah, this is my job."
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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles – but she always wants to see more. Follow here or on Twitter.