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Who Is Chesa Boudin? Meet the San Francisco DA at the center of a media storm

Who Is Chesa Boudin? Meet the San Francisco DA at the center of a media storm

His first name is Swahili for “dancing feet,” and his last name sounds like he’s the heir to a famous San Francisco sourdough baking empire—but he is not.

Chesa Boudin is San Francisco’s District Attorney, and currently the most talked-about lawyer in the city.

The staunchly progressive District Attorney has recently come under fire for his office’s handling of a parolee accused of killing two pedestrians during a deadly hit-and-run in SoMa on New Year’s Eve. Critics say that Boudin should have done more to keep the allegedly intoxicated driver off the streets. Meanwhile, Boudin has pointed to systemic failures and miscommunications between law enforcement agencies as the cause of the tragedy. 

Still, some are going as far as calling for Boudin’s resignation. Here’s a primer on Boudin.

Riding the Wave of Progressive Prosecution to San Francisco’s DA Office

Boudin was elected DA in November 2019, defeating Mayor Breed-appointed Interim District Attorney Suzy Loftus by a razor-thin margin in a ranked choice voting contest. 

Boudin, previously a public defender, campaigned on a progressive, anti-incarceration platform which promised the creation of a Wrongful Convictions Unit, an Innocence Commission and the abolishment of cash bail, which he actually eliminated for all criminal cases in January 2020. (Boudin’s office announced the creation of a Post-Conviction Unit to work in concert with an all-volunteer Innocence Commission last September.)

Boudin’s election as San Francisco DA “generally panicked” the democratic establishment in San Francisco, according to KQED Political Breakdown podcast host Scott Shafer, who interviewed Boudin with his co-host Marisa Lagos shortly after Boudin’s election. Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris, Dianne Feinstein, they all lined up behind Suzy Loftus, and Chesa Boudin won in spite of or maybe because of that,” said Shafer on the podcast. The San Francisco Police Officers Association spent over $600,000 on negative campaign ads targeting Boudin. 

Boudin, in turn, received the blessing of Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders.

With his win, Boudin joined a slate of “progressive prosecutors” throughout the country who, in recent years, have run and won on progressive agendas to reform the criminal justice system through policies such as rolling back mass incarceration, ending cash bail and eradicating the death penalty. He is the first San Francisco District Attorney to charge an alum of the SFPD with homicide in a use-of-force case and he peppered 2020 with a series of charges against current and former city police officers. Boudin has also gained attention for employing grand juries to help clear a backlog of thousands of idling cases and reducing the city’s prison population during the pandemic.  

A Colorful Life & Hugo Chavez Connection

Before taking control of the DA’s office, Boudin had a far from average education and upbringing. The son of four Weather Underground-affiliated parents, Boudin studied at Yale, then Oxford (where he was a Rhodes scholar), and returned to Yale for his law degree. 

Boudin was just 14 months old when his parents—Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert—left him with a babysitter to take part in a botched heist of a Brink’s armored truck that ultimately left two police officers and a security guard dead. While his parents were incarcerated for murder and robbery (though neither of them fired a shot that day), Boudin was raised by his adoptive parents, Weather Underground couple Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, in Chicago. (Boudin’s grandfather, Leonard Boudin, was a famous civil rights attorney.)

Boudin has often cited his experience growing up with incarcerated parents as deeply influential on his view of the legal system. Boudin’s biological mother was released on parole in 2003. His father is serving a 75 years-to-life sentence. 

Chesa Boudin | Smeeta Mahanti for Chesa 4DA

“My mother and father did the exact same thing and had identical culpability in the crime,” Boudin told Times Union. “My mother served 22 years in prison and was paroled 17 years ago, while my father is still in prison. It’s an example of criminal justice imbalance.” 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Boudin has lobbied New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to grant his father clemency

Much has also been made of Boudin’s time in Venezuela as an alleged translator to Hugo Chavez and his apparent support for the late Venezuelan leader’s rule over that country. But contrary to that oft-cited anecdote about his youthful travels through South America (some chronicled in his 2009 memoir), Boudin did not serve as a translator in Chavez’s administration. He did work as a translator on a book of interviews featuring Chavez. (Boudin sets the record straight here around 15:46.) 

Controversies & Recall Campaign

While some politicos have lauded Boudin’s election as a signal from voters that they’re ready for criminal justice reform, the DA who’s just finished out his first year on the job has antagonized many. 

Just two days after taking office, Boudin came under fire for canning at least seven prosecutors during a January 2020 purge dubbed the “Friday Night Massacre.” He also drew scrutiny for quietly dismissing a high-profile beating case involving two Alameda County sheriff’s deputies in March of last year. (Boudin told the SF Chronicle he planned to refile the case “as soon as we’re able to do so successfully,” but did not share details.)

And then of course, there’s the New Year’s Eve hit-and-run.

Boudin charged parolee Troy McAlister, who allegedly barrelled through a red light in a stolen car and struck two people dead, with two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated on Jan. 4. But critics have faulted the DA for not doing something about McAlister sooner. 

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An NBC Bay Area investigation into McAlister’s criminal record revealed that under California’s Three Strikes law, McAlister was facing a possible life sentence for an earlier robbery charge. But under a new policy issued by Boudin, his office brokered a plea deal instead, giving McAlister credit for five years served. McAlister was released on parole last spring and racked up a string of arrests, ranging from burglary to theft, between June and December. Rather than pressing new charges on McAlister, the DA’s office repeatedly referred him to parole. 

Yet, as pointed out in this nuanced profile of the case by Mission Local, the San Francisco Police Department did not contact McAlister’s parole officer after his most recent arrest on Dec. 20, nor did the parole office make moves to revoke McAlister’s  parole after his multiple arrests. On Dec. 29, Daly City Police received a report of a stolen car implicating McAlister, and set a follow-up date of Jan. 3. (For their part, Daly City Police and parole said they did follow up on McAlister’s cases in their statements to the press.) 

Public ire reached another level when news reports revealed that Boudin’s name had appeared on court documents as a public defender for McAlister back in 2018. But legal Twitter explained that Boudin’s “special appearance” wasn’t a conflict of interest but standard operating procedure for busy DAs and public defenders filling in for each other when they can’t be “in two places at once.”

Boudin has said that the events leading up to the tragic New Year’s Eve hit-and-run represent a breakdown of communication between various law enforcement agencies.  

“We need to work with the police and with all other law enforcement agencies that we partner with to do a better job at keeping the city safe,” Boudin told ABC 7. “I can’t do it without the police, they can’t do it without me, and parole certainly can’t do it if nobody even tells them somebody they supervise has been arrested. And that is exactly what happened here on December 20, and again with a different agency on December 29.”

But some are still calling for Boudin’s withdrawal from office. The DA is currently the target of a recall campaign, a petition demanding his resignation (spearheaded by former Republican mayoral candidate and political commentator Richie Greenberg) and the rallying cry for a GoFundMe organized by angel investor Jason Calacanis, who is seeking to hire an investigative journalist to cover the DA and his office.

San Francisco Police Officers Association President Tony Montoya told the AP, “Two people were killed on New Year’s Eve because Chesa Boudin refused to do his job, which is to hold criminals and victimizers accountable.”

In turn, Mayor Breed has called for responsibility and accountability. In an interview, Breed told City Journal, a local Chinese-language newspaper, that “there still has to be accountability. And had this person been held accountable for the numerous crimes that they committed, then this possibly would not have even happened.”

“I’m running my office as well as I can, and I’m working as hard as I can under historically difficult circumstances,” said Boudin in an interview with KQED reflecting on his first year, which also included a worldwide pandemic. “I’m rolling up my sleeves and I’m personally doing the work to keep our cases moving forward and to help make San Francisco safer for all of us.” 

But it is the last night of 2020 that threatens to cast a long shadow over Boudin during 2021.

  • A special appearance on a case isn’t a conflict because “Legal Twitter” says so? Huh? Why not ask an expert in legal ethics if you want a credible answer?

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