Justice delayed and denied for eight years, Asa Sullivan’s family appeals federal court decision to clear killer cops

Introduction

by Mesha Irizarry

On Tuesday, June 6, 2006, around 8 p.m., an SFPD officer fatally shot Brother Asa as he crouched in an attic’s two-and-a-half-foot crawl space, hiding because he’d recently spent a short time in jail and was afraid of going back. According to press reports, officers were responding to a neighbor’s complaint of possible trespassers, yet Asa and his friend were there with the tenants’ permission.

During the trial over the wrongful death by San Francisco police of Asa Sullivan, Lisa Ganser and Nomy Lamm, friends of Asa’s mother, Kat Espinosa, made drawings of the proceedings. – Art: Lisa Ganser
During the trial over the wrongful death by San Francisco police of Asa Sullivan, Lisa Ganser and Nomy Lamm, friends of Asa’s mother, Kat Espinosa, made drawings of the proceedings. – Art: Lisa Ganser

According to then Police Chief Heather Fong in the initial press release, “Asa B. Sullivan, 25, had his arms outstretched and was holding a cylindrical object when the officers confronted him in an apartment at Lake Merced housing complex,” an upscale residential community.

The “object” turned out to be an eyeglass case: “Tales of the dark side: SFPD shooting death of Asa Sullivan, 21 months later.”

Three years later, Khalil, Asa’s brother, wrote this very moving piece for the SF Bay View newspaper: “In that attic, I saw my brother’s blood covering the floor and walls.”

In 2006, Asa’s family retained the services of John Burris’ law firm. In 2010, the San Francisco Police Officers Association attempted to block his wrongful death federal suit. But in January 2012, The U.S. Supreme Court denied requests by San Francisco and other police organizations to block the lawsuit.

The court, without comment, declined to review a March 2010 federal appeals court ruling allowing Asa Sullivan’s mother and son to sue the San Francisco Police Department, alleging that the officers gained illegal entry into the apartment and then used excessive force.

In September 2014, the federal trial began – with no African Americans on the jury, only whites and Asians. By mid-October 2014, SFPD was exonerated of all wrongdoing in the case of Asa Sullivan’s death. The family is appealing the decision and will likely be back in front of an appellate court in approximately two years.

Mesha Monge-Irizarry, mother of Idriss Stelley, who was murdered by San Francisco police June 13, 2001, heads the Idriss Stelley Foundation, the foremost Bay Area agency dedicated to police accountability. Contact her through the foundation’s bilingual crisis line at (415) 595-8251 or through Facebook.

Stars out, guns drawn: The wrongful death of Asa Sullivan

by Lisa Ganser and Nomy Lamm

The day the trial started, Sept. 8, 2014, would have been Asa’s 34th birthday. What would Asa have thought, sitting in that federal courtroom in Oakland? Seeing his mom and the mother of his child forced to sit through gory photos and slanderous testimony, his brother and girlfriend kicked out of the courtroom because they were on the witness list?

Don Cameron, one of the expert witnesses, has been teaching police to “take people down” for over 40 years. – Art: Lisa Ganser
Don Cameron, one of the expert witnesses, has been teaching police to “take people down” for over 40 years. – Art: Lisa Ganser

What if Asa had been witness to this carefully constructed story, developed over eight years, played out during a month-long trial by a parade of SFPD officers and their changing stories, “expert witnesses” paid hundreds of dollars an hour to testify, and documents dug up from the span of Asa’s life to try to prove that his death was justified. That the police had no choice but to shoot him. That that’s what he wanted. Suicide by cop.

Asa would say this is bullshit.

We showed up in the courtroom a week into the trial, in solidarity with Asa’s family. We wanted to show our faces, to show up for those who couldn’t.

We wanted to support Kat Espinosa, Asa’s mom, who we had just recently met. We wanted to do what we could, and what we can do is sometimes small, and specific. Like bringing snacks to lay out in the hallway on breaks. Or collecting clothes from friends who wear the same size, so the mom of a murdered child doesn’t have to spend money on court clothes. Do something.

As we sat behind Kat in the courtroom, we watched police officer Michelle Alvis take the stand. This was the officer who led the charge on June 6, 2006, “stars out, guns drawn,” as she put it, into the apartment in Park Merced where Asa was staying.

This was the officer who proceeded into the attic without hesitation, without a flashlight, to “clear the scene.” The officer who found Asa, seated, unarmed, in a far corner of the attic. Michelle Alvis pointed her gun at him, wouldn’t back down, started shooting without provocation, triggering another officer, John Keesor, to also start shooting and emptied her chamber until Asa Sullivan was dead.

Nomy’s impression of Don Cameron. – Art: Nomy Lamm
Nomy’s impression of Don Cameron. – Art: Nomy Lamm

She spoke with a shaky voice. “I knew I had to go up there,” Alvis said, crying. “It was a moment of being very vulnerable. I didn’t know if there was someone in there with a weapon. It was hard to see, it was so dark.”

She described herself as a “sitting duck,” said that she was “trapped.” She was trapped? The only lights illuminating the attic came from four police flashlights, shining in the face of Asa Sullivan.

Stars out, guns drawn. In the 12-minute radio recording from that night, we could hear another officer saying they should slow down, pull back, set up a perimeter and “get him later.” But Alvis was like, “I got this.”

She described Asa as “sweaty and angry,” that his hair was in “some sort of braids.” She said she pleaded with him to show his hands. When he raised one hand, she said she “should have shot then.”

She claimed she saw his other arm move, heard a “pop,” and started shooting so fast she couldn’t be sure if the pop came from her own gun. She said she thought she was “being killed.”

Asa’s mother, Kathleen Espinosa testifies, responding to the questions of her attorney, John Burris. – Art: Nomy Lamm
Asa’s mother, Kathleen Espinosa testifies, responding to the questions of her attorney, John Burris. – Art: Nomy Lamm

She looked at the jury when she spoke. She was sobbing for what seemed like her own selfish reasons. The wrong reasons. She showed no remorse.

We keep putting ourselves in young Asa Sullivan’s shoes. We can’t imagine how scary that must have been. Those cops had no business being there.

He was at home at the place where he stayed. He had his own bedroom. He was hanging out with his friend who was also staying there.

The police came and he was scared, he didn’t want to get in trouble, he wanted to get away. He went up into the attic and they kept coming. Stars out, guns drawn.

He was trapped in a corner, he was seated. Looking around, going, “How do I get out of this?” He was kicking through the floor. Asa Sullivan didn’t want to die. He just didn’t want to go to jail.

The “expert” witnesses for the defense were paid as much as $50,000 each to defend the police, to fabricate a story that says Asa’s life wasn’t worth living. They dragged up therapy records from his childhood; they found evidence that he had been suicidal, that he was depressed, that he was facing jail time.

His mom said yes, he had been a troubled child. He had mental health issues. He had some hearings coming up; she had gone with him to get a suit. She smiled when she spoke of him. She talked about good times. She shared photos of him laughing and playing with his son and his nieces.

What is it that makes someone an expert witness? A history within the system. Being on that side for a long, long time.

Lisa’s impression of Asa’s mother’s testimony. – Art: Lisa Ganser
Lisa’s impression of Asa’s mother’s testimony. – Art: Lisa Ganser

Don Cameron, one of the lead witnesses, has been teaching police to “take people down” for over 40 years. He literally said they should shoot first, and then assess any disability-related needs. Always assume the person has a gun. Take out the threat. When asked directly, “How do you update your trainings,” he said, “I keep teaching them.”

There was no investigation of any kind into the police officers who killed Asa Sullivan. No looking into their mental health histories, no exposing any history of drug use, no piss test or tox screen, no scavenging for past wrongdoings.

Judge Jeffrey White forbade the defense and the prosecution to mention that Officer Paul Morgado, one of the officers in the attic that night, was no longer a police officer (he was fired for racism and violence in 2009), and that Michelle Alvis, the first shooter, was indicted two months after Asa’s killing for stealing $2,000 from police evidence (she was released for insufficient proof).

In this photo collage of Asa Sullivan and his family, the photo at top left shows the four siblings: Asa’s sister T-sha, brother Sangh, brother Kahlil and Asa; in the top center closeup are Little Asa and Asa; at top right are Sangh, Jeff, Asa’s niece’s dad, and Asa; in the middle row at left, from the top are Asa holding his sister’s daughter J-zsha, his mother Kathy, T-sha and Sangh; at the center of the collage is a family gathering and below it, Asa and his mom; to the right in the white jacket is Asa; at the bottom left is Asa’s own family: Nicole, Asa and Little Asa; and at the bottom right are the three brothers: Sangh, Asa and Kahlil.
In this photo collage of Asa Sullivan and his family, the photo at top left shows the four siblings: Asa’s sister T-sha, brother Sangh, brother Kahlil and Asa; in the top center closeup are Little Asa and Asa; at top right are Sangh, Jeff, Asa’s niece’s dad, and Asa; in the middle row at left, from the top are Asa holding his sister’s daughter J-zsha, his mother Kathy, T-sha and Sangh; at the center of the collage is a family gathering and below it, Asa and his mom; to the right in the white jacket is Asa; at the bottom left is Asa’s own family: Nicole, Asa and Little Asa; and at the bottom right are the three brothers: Sangh, Asa and Kahlil.

These stories weren’t allowed in the courtroom. How is it that Asa Sullivan ended up being the one on trial?

So because Asa Sullivan went to therapy when he was a kid he was supposed to die? Because he had a mental health disability he was supposed to die? Because he was young he was supposed to die? Because he was a person of color he was supposed to die? Because he had been arrested before he was supposed to die?

Because he was sweaty he was supposed to die? Because he had trace amounts of drugs in his system he was supposed to die? Because he hadn’t seen his kid for a week he was supposed to die? Because he didn’t have a permanent address he was supposed to die?

Because he lost a job he was supposed to die? Fuck all that. He wasn’t trying to kill himself. He was living life. Life is complicated. Aren’t these examples of struggles that many of us face, as a process of being human?

On the last day of the trial, Oct. 6, the courtroom was filled with love for Asa Sullivan: Kat, his mother. Nicole, the mother of his child. His brother Kahlil. His girlfriend April.

Asa was a father, a son, a brother, an uncle. He had dreams, goals, friendships and loves. He was into video games. He had a loud voice and a great sense of humor. He loved kids. So many sweet pictures of him playing with little kids.

Shortly before Asa’s death, someone had taken the time to lovingly braid his hair. We saw that beautiful hair, on large screens projected in the courtroom, several times throughout the trial.

Braids splattered with blood. A wrongful death. Five shots to the face. Sixteen shots total, according to police. Seventeen if you count the one that “grazed” him. And yes, his mother counts that one.

Lisa Ganser and Nomy Lamm are artists, activists and odd jobbers who love each other and live in the Mission. They can be reached at ganserL@gmail.com or nomylamm@hotmail.com