Trial by Fire

A jury considers whether a store clerk in the Bayview acted in cold blood or in self-defense when he shot a woman he accused of shoplifting.

Like so many stories in the Bayview that end badly, Haggag Mohsin's started with a gun. Yet the 9mm semiautomatic pistol with the loaded magazine kept behind the counter of his brother's hip-hop clothing store, Pop Ya Collar, wasn't supposed to be used to commit a crime, but to protect him from being the victim of one.

Before the 21-year-old Mohsin pulled the trigger, October 11, 2006, had started like any other day. He opened Pop Ya Collar around 10 a.m., where he manned the register. His brother Adeeb came in to chat for a bit before walking to his own post behind the cash register at Bayview Liquors, the other family business on Third Street, the main thoroughfare of the crime-ridden San Francisco neighborhood.

Cameras recorded two guys Mohsin says provided the muscle during the alleged robbery.
Courtesy of Teresa Caffese
Cameras recorded two guys Mohsin says provided the muscle during the alleged robbery.
Jamie Hatch escaped the shot car unscathed.
Lauren Smiley
Jamie Hatch escaped the shot car unscathed.

Mohsin's job wasn't exactly exciting, but it was dangerous. Two months earlier, he had been robbed at gunpoint. Afterward, he rode around with a cop looking for the suspects, but none were ever caught.

At about 12:45 p.m. on October 11, two men came into the store, their hands drawn up into oversize sleeves. Mohsin didn't know if they were armed, but the one with dreads and a black hoodie told him it was "gonna go down" and demanded that he "act normal or we'll knock the fuck out of you." Mohsin thought the other guy, in a camouflage parka and sunglasses, was the same punk who had showed up days after the previous robbery with a promise: If he called the cops, "I'll bust you in the back of your head or burn your store down with you in it." Then two African-American women with big purses walked in. Mohsin remembered one as the lady who'd asked him just days prior whether his clothing had security beepers. They headed straight for the storage room in back while the two men kept an eye on Mohsin.

The two women eventually came out with their purses looking "huge," Mohsin would later testify, the older one setting a pair of jeans on the counter. After they left, he picked up the clothes strewn on the ground and checked the storeroom. Yep, several empty shoeboxes.

Mohsin peeked out the front door. To his surprise, the group lingered outside, talking as if nothing had happened. Although he didn't know them by name, Mohsin saw that the two women he suspected of shoplifiting had gotten into a red Honda parked near the store — Deborah Smith in the driver's seat, and the younger one, Jamie Hatch, sitting shotgun. Recalling the arson threat, Mohsin decided to close up shop to let things calm down and head to his brother's liquor store to call the cops. He grabbed the gun, cocked back the slide to clink a bullet into the chamber, and stuffed it into the pocket of his hoodie.

Walking out the store's only exit, Mohsin shut the door and locked its two locks. The noise drew the attention of the guys (later identified in a witness interview as "RJ" and "Killa"), who had acted as muscle while the women raided the storeroom. The men were standing near the Honda, which had a "Fear This!" sticker stretching across its back bumper. As Mohsin started to shut the store's security gate, the guys strutted toward him with "scary faces," he'd later say. When they were just five feet away with no sign of stopping, Mohsin grabbed the gun from his pocket and fired a round just "to scare [them] off."

The bullet shattered the back windshield of the Honda, which was pulling away, and pierced Smith's neck. The two men ran down the street, while Smith screamed that she'd been shot and frantically drove down Oakdale to find help. The women eventually spotted a police officer and told him Smith had been shot by the Arab storekeeper.

As the cops strode into Pop Ya Collar minutes later, Mohsin turned and stuffed the gun into a rack of T-shirts. The police asked him if he knew why they were there, and he answered, "Because I shot someone. Are they okay? They're not hurt, are they?" The police drove him to the Bayview police station for questioning, where Mohsin insisted he had fired the gun because he feared for his safety, but the police investigator didn't buy it. The women in the car had a different story: They hadn't swiped a thing. Mohsin had followed them to their car parked around the corner, rapped on the window, and shot into the car as they drove away.

Despite Mohsin's spotless record and claim that he was acting in self-defense, police turned over the case to the district attorney for charging the next day.

Last month, he sat in the courthouse next to City Hall, facing charges of shooting into an occupied vehicle and causing great bodily injury with a firearm, which carries a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life. That was in addition to two charges of assault with a firearm.

Mohsin's public defender alleges that the District Attorney's office just wants to look tough on crime in the Bayview. Although the prosecutor denies being overzealous, there's no questioning the fact that the DA's case, to a large degree, rested on the shoulders of a habitual shoplifter who couldn't keep her story straight. Hatch, who had a falling-out with Smith soon after the shooting and recently talked to SF Weekly from jail, wonders whether her former cohort really wants justice or just a fat check in her pending lawsuit against the store.

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