The Complex Case Emerging of the Attack of an Asian Woman in San Francisco

The Complex Case Emerging of the Attack of an Asian Woman in San Francisco

2021-06-10 13:22:29
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Good morning.

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.

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."


California Today goes live on weekdays at 6:30 a.m. in the Pacific. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected]. Have you been forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

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.


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