In pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination, California’s junior senator touts her experience as a “progressive prosecutor.” The case of Teresa Sheehan illustrates that the reality is more complicated.
When San Francisco police broke down a door inside a group home for mentally disabled people in 2008 and shot a 56-year-old resident, then-District Attorney Kamala Harris didn’t charge the officers with a crime. Instead she prosecuted the schizophrenic woman who was severely injured in the shooting.
Harris charged Teresa Sheehan with assaulting the officers, alleging she came at them with a kitchen knife after they forced their way into her room. But the jury was not convinced. It deadlocked in favor of acquitting Sheehan on the assault charges, and found her not guilty of threatening to kill a social worker who had called the police for help to get Sheehan into a psychiatric hospital.
“Somebody used very poor judgement in deciding to bring these charges,” said Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
“If (Harris) actually looked at it and said, ‘This is a righteous case, I want to go after a mentally ill woman who was shot,’ then you question that decision. If she didn’t know about it, then you question her management skills.”
Today Harris, California’s junior U.S. senator, is trying to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination by highlighting her experience as a “progressive prosecutor.” The Sheehan case, though, is an example of her complicated record in criminal justice.
Harris did not re-try the case after the jury deadlocked, and Sheehan went on to sue the police for excessive force. After a legal battle that lasted several years and included arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, Sheehan won a $1 million settlement. Her civil suit also resulted in a landmark appellate court ruling that says police must take more care when interacting with people they know have a mental illness.
Harris was not involved in the civil suit. Her campaign spokesperson declined to say how involved Harris was in making decisions about the criminal case, but said she appropriately did her job in charging Sheehan.
“It was the responsibility of the District Attorney’s office to pursue accountability for individuals who may have committed assault against police officers,” Kate Waters wrote in an email.
Over her years as district attorney and California attorney general, Harris developed a reputation for being cautious on criminal justice issues and took criticism from across the political spectrum. Those on the left deride her for upholding wrongful convictions and the death penalty, while law enforcement and moderate Democrats were upset that in 2004 she declined to seek the death penalty for a man who had killed a police officer.
Harris recently released a plan for criminal justice reform that involves reversing some of her earlier positions. She now supports independent investigations of police shootings — though she didn’t back proposals to do the same thing in California when she was attorney general. She says she wants a tougher national legal standard allowing police to use deadly force only when necessary — a standard California just signed into law. But a key part of the new state law holds officers accountable for their actions leading up to a shooting — a provision that allows officers to be prosecuted if they escalate a confrontation before it’s become deadly.
In the Sheehan case, Harris cleared the officers of wrongdoing, and her office wrote an article in the San Francisco police officer union’s monthly newsletter touting a judge’s decision to allow the charges against Sheehan to go to trial.
“San Francisco District Attorney Kamala D. Harris announced that Teresa Sheehan… was held to answer on charges of assaulting two San Francisco police officers with a deadly weapon and threatening to kill a social worker,” said the article from October 2008.
“The police subdued the defendant by shooting her several times.”
Such articles were routine during Harris’ time as district attorney. She had a regular spot in the police union’s newsletter where she highlighted developments in key cases. The articles were part of her effort to build rapport with the police department — a dynamic that got off to a bad start when Harris declined to pursue the death penalty against a cop killer just a few months after she was sworn in.
“I think the relationship between the DA’s Office and the average police officer has come a long way since I first took office four years ago,” Harris said in an interview in the police newsletter in March 2008. “There is more trust and a better understanding that the DA’s Office is committed to working with the Police Department to get dangerous criminals off our streets and make San Francisco a safer city.”
That Sheehan could be considered a dangerous criminal was unfathomable to her attorney.
“She had no record. There was no reason to believe that this was criminal behavior,” Kleigh Hathaway, Sheehan’s public defender, told CalMatters.
Hathaway said she thought she’d be able to quickly get the case dismissed, and was surprised how hard the district attorney’s office fought it.
“It was really clear hearing from potential jurors how outraged they were,” Hathaway recalled.
“There was this complete surprise and shock that this (56)-year-old Japanese-American woman who was in a wheelchair (from her injuries) was being charged with all these horrible crimes.”
Sheehan declined to be interviewed. Court records describe what happened the day she was shot: She had been off her medication and behaving strangely when a social worker decided she needed to be hospitalized and called police for help. Two officers entered her room, and found Sheehan lying on her bed. She then picked up a knife from a plate beside her, and came toward the officers shouting threats. They retreated to the hallway, and Sheehan closed the door.
“With the door being closed and us not having the ability to see what she was doing, we had no way of knowing whether… she had an avenue of escape” or access to other weapons, one of the responding officers said in court records. “And so in my opinion, as soon as that door was closed, the threat became more scary for us.”
The officers called for backup and drew their weapons. They broke down the door and pepper-sprayed Sheehan as she allegedly moved toward them with the knife. Then they shot her.
Hathaway argued that backup officers had arrived with bean-bag projectiles and that there was no need for the first two officers to break in and shoot. The jury deadlocked with 11 of 12 jurors voting to acquit Sheehan on the charges of assaulting the police officers. Afterward, one juror told the San Francisco Chronicle that police used excessive force and that Sheehan should not have been criminally charged. Others said they doubted if she was mentally capable of standing trial.
The assistant district attorney who handled the case declined to be interviewed for this article.
Hathaway, Sheehan’s public defender, said she never dealt directly with Harris on the case and didn’t know how involved she was in making decisions about it.
But, she said, “This wasn’t progressive at all. This was completely unsympathetic.”
Hathaway said she later went on to vote for Harris, and has been impressed with her performance as a senator. Though she hasn’t decided who she’s supporting for president, Hathaway says she’s intrigued by Harris’ campaign.
Harris defined her idea of a progressive prosecutor in “The Truths We Hold,” the book she published earlier this year:
“My vision of a progressive prosecutor was someone who used the power of the office with a sense of fairness, perspective, and experience, someone who was clear about the need to hold serious criminals accountable and who understood that the best way to create safe communities was to prevent crime in the first place,” Harris wrote.
Sheehan’s sisters have a different view, shaped by frustrations they faced advocating for their sister in 2008. They were flabbergasted that she could be put on trial after police broke in and shot her, and upset by the quality of medical care she received in jail for gunshots and shattered bones that have left her with a sunken face and a metal rod in her leg.
Frances Sheehan said she repeatedly asked Harris and then-mayor Gavin Newsom to meet with her, but both of them refused. Her sister Patricia said that’s shaped her political views ever since.
“I just couldn’t cast my vote for either one of them, no matter what,” Patricia Sheehan said in a recent interview. “They didn’t even have the courtesy to give five minutes to my sister Frances when she begged and begged… to listen to what was going on with Teresa.”
Editors’ note: This story was updated to clarify that Harris’ office wrote the article in the police officer union’s newsletter.
Hear more about Sheehan’s case in an upcoming episode of the Force Of Law podcast, which explores California’s attempt to reduce police shootings.