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...

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.

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.

Law aside, the Bayview had its own system of justice for Haggag Mohsin. Hours after the shooting, his store went up in flames.

Fresh off his day job as a civilian employee at the Oakland Police Department, Adnan Mohsin pulls up on Third Street in his black Honda with a sticker that, according to Adnan, declares “Only one God; Muhammad is the prophet” in Arabic across the rear window to start his night shift at Bayview Liquors. Adnan plucks a black .40-caliber pistol out of the armrest and swathes it in a checkered kaffiyeh scarf. He crosses the street, the bundle in hand, and enters the store he and Adeeb, two of Haggag's older brothers, now keep running as much out of defiance as economic survival.


The arson and threats “don't mean I'm gonna leave my business and run away, because that's what they think they're gonna do,” Adnan says. “I'm not givin' up.”

After the shooting, rumors of the Arab shopkeeper who shot a black woman in the back spread like wildfire down Third Street. The uninsured African-American landlord of Pop Ya Collar, Franklin Bell, claims he pleaded with a local man, Ralph Talley, to spare his building and burn the Mohsins' liquor store on the corner instead. But in the early hours of the morning of Oct. 12, Talley chucked a lit gasoline-filled Snapple bottle through the shop's window, the flames spreading to burn more than $100,000 worth of merchandise. Later that day on the Channel 5 news, he played dumb for the cameras: “This stuff like that ain't never gonna be over. Whoever done this here, that was small.” Talley was later convicted of arson and handed a three-year prison sentence.

Haggag's brothers continue to show up for work each day. Their grandparents had immigrated from Yemen in the 1930s; their uncle was the first in the family to open a store in the Bay Area, where, after decades working in the Central Valley fields, Yemeni immigrants found a niche in liquor and small grocery stores in the '60s and '70s. Yemenis are now so numerous that they have joined with other Arabs and South Asians to form the San Francisco–based Arab Grocers Association, representing some 400 stores in the Bay Area. But it's a job that puts them on the frontlines of urban violence. The Yemeni Consulate has collected reward money in local mosques to catch suspects in multiple murders of liquor store employees.

The brothers found the Third Street location in 2002 after the family's Oakland store was bought out by the school district. During the negotiation process to buy the store, an Arab worker at the liquor store directly across the street was shot dead. The brothers attempted to get out of the sale, but it was too late.

Adnan says you'd be a fool to not have a gun to defend yourself. After all, his family is haunted by violent incidents that happened while working in retail outlets in poor neighborhoods. In 2005, Adnan says, his uncle owned the store in Oakland that was invaded by Yusuf Bey IV and his suit-and-bow-tied followers from Your Black Muslim Bakery, who demanded he stopped selling liquor to African-Americans and smashed the glass doors of the store's refrigerators. Robbers shot dead a childhood friend of Haggag's who worked at a North Richmond convenience store; Adnan says another uncle was killed after a hold-up in his New York store. In high school, Haggag wrestled an Uzi out of the hands of a guy who held him up at a Walgreens cash register in Berkeley.

“Every day, it's always in your mind,” Adnan says. “You come in the store, in a split second, anything can happen.”

Of course, business is not all antagonistic. Some of the Arab shop owners who've grown up in the neighborhood maintain a friendly relationship with the community, calling customers by name and even donating food and drinks to local charities. Customers know Adeeb as “Mike” and Adnan as “Sam,” and will kid him that “Sam don't eat ham.” The store tapes photos of the locals' kids near the cash register alongside their own family photos.

Having learned English in a black neighborhood and in predominantly African-American schools, the older brothers speak with Ebonics-tinged grammar and Middle Eastern accents (they were all born in Yemen, but emigrated young). In the style of the locals, Adnan refers to himself as an “A-rab.” They sell liquor and pork skins, but don't consume either because of their Muslim faith; the brothers often bow for their daily prayers in the back storeroom. Adnan despises hip-hop — “It's all about how you want to kill a person, or how you want to sleep with this woman” — and says he has never been to a club in his life, preferring to barbecue kebabs at picnics with his extended family on the weekends.

But the shooting proved that the Mohsins couldn't completely separate themselves from the pitfalls of the hood where they did business. Going to jail “is normal” to some troublemakers in the Bayview, “because they've been in trouble, they go to jail it don't matter, they stay out it don't matter,” Adnan says. “But to us, it's a big thing, you know?” He describes Haggag, a married father, as the “mellow and funniest brother,” the one who would laugh off disagreements. Haggag would get to the mosque to pray with their elderly father at 5 a.m. and was focused on his dream of becoming an Oakland cop — specifically, a homicide investigator. Haggag was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 2006, where he had trained for several months to serve as an Arabic translator (he says a recruiter claimed it would help him advance his police career) when he refused to deploy to Iraq or Guantanamo Bay on antiwar grounds. “I know if my brother have the chance not to shoot, he would not do it,” Adnan says.

Yet some folks still have it in for Haggag. Adnan says he got threatening phone calls to his cellphone for two years after the shooting: If he gets out of that case, we're gonna look for him. If he goes to jail, we got somebody waiting for him. Adnan would just hang up.

The morning after the shooting, Jamie Hatch woke up in a room at San Francisco General Hospital as the TV news mentioned a story about five suspected shoplifters. She had spent the night beside Smith, who was recovering from the shooting in which bullet fragments fractured a vertebra in her neck and lodged next to her carotid artery, just short of a potentially fatal injury. The TV news announced that Pop Ya Collar had been torched, and Hatch says she rejoiced. “I was like, 'Yeah! That's what the fuck he get. He doesn't just get to go around shootin' people.'” She recalls Smith was less energetic: “She was just like, 'Oh my God, who did this?' Debbie was worried they'd think we had something to do with it.”


The fire wasn't the end of street justice for Haggag Mohsin. Two days after the shooting, he says, he was jumped by several African-American men in the holding cell while he was in custody. They attempted to stab him in the face with a pencil, and then broke his nose.

Hatch snorts while recalling that jumping from a spartan interview room at the San Francisco County Jail, where she's currently in custody for violating her probation on a previous drug conviction. “I don't know how [the news] got in here,” she says. “I think people went racial with it. You're a — we call them A-rabs — you don't get to just do that.” Still, she insists she's no racist: “Some of 'em are cool, some of them stay to themselves.”

Hatch says Smith, now 43, is a distant cousin she'd known since she was a child (although at trial, Smith said the women were not related). Now 24, Hatch speaks openly about her past, however unflattering. Growing up in the projects along Cesar Chavez, she dropped out of high school some time after having a baby at age 15 and became a career shoplifter — known as a “booster” in street lingo. She'd steal merchandise all over the Bay Area and later sell it at a reduced price, or take “orders” to steal specific items. Court records show she was most recently caught in January at Macy's for taking a Sean John shirt she says was for a job interview later that day. So Hatch understands why people might doubt her when she says she and Smith weren't robbing Pop Ya Collar. But she insists that, at the time, the two women were trying to go legit and had landed jobs at a Tenderloin hotel.

Although Hatch testified at the preliminary hearing, the DA said she couldn't find Hatch to serve her with a subpoena to testify during the trial. It seems that may have been a good thing for the prosecution. Hatch says the women had a falling-out after the shooting, and now alleges that Smith is exaggerating her injury to get a bigger payout in her personal injury lawsuit against Mohsin, whose store has a $1 million insurance policy. Hatch says that Smith would put on her neck brace only when she was going to visit her caseworker at the DA's office, who had helped her apply for state money for victims of violent crime. “She didn't need that fuckin' neck brace,” Hatch says. “As soon as she got home she'd take it off. She'd be like, 'Girl, this has got me sweatin' all day.'”

Hatch says now she feels “used” to testify so Smith can win a handsome sum in her civil suit. “I didn't know this situation was gonna turn into evil. Who doesn't want 'justice'?” Hatch said, making air quotes with her fingers. “But she's not looking at it as justice. She's looking at it to get paid.”

Mike Cohen, the attorney representing Smith in the civil suit pending in Alameda County Superior Court, disagrees. A guilty verdict, he said, might actually make it harder to win a claim, because it would show the shooting was an intentional act by Mohsin — and thus may not be covered by the store's insurance policy. “Debbie basically took the position that she's going to put it in God's hands because all she's interested in is the truth,” he says. “She's going to say what happened and let the criminal process take its course, and if it makes it harder for us on the civil side, she doesn't care.”

Although her version questioned Smith's motives, Hatch's account of the day Mohsin shot Smith is still damning and backs up the central point of the prosecution's case: He pursued the women out of the store and fired into a car he knew people were sitting in. Hatch says she tried on pants but didn't buy them; she then left the store and walked to Smith's car around the corner on Oakdale. Hatch says Mohsin crossed the street and tapped on the car's driver's-side window. Smith slammed on the accelerator, they heard the gunshot, and then Smith screamed she'd been hit. “He could have killed her,” Hatch says. “He could have killed me. I just want him to get what he deserves.”

A few weeks ago in a modern courtroom six floors above Civic Center Plaza and seemingly a world away from the scorched Pop Ya Collar, a prosecutor who'd never lost a firearm case in her four years at the office stacked up the evidence against Haggag Mohsin for the jury.

Assistant District Attorney Suzy Loftus played the recording of a police investigator interrogating Mohsin at Bayview Station the day of the shooting. Mohsin, sounding small and scared, said he shot at the car, aiming for the “license plate or the taillight.” Loftus called on the chief medical examiner to look at Smith's records and testify that the bullet's trajectory was consistent with the position of a woman hunched over in her seat when shot from behind and to the left, which would corroborate Smith's version of events as much as Mohsin's.

Yet much of the prosecution's case depended on how much the jury would believe Smith. She entered the courtroom like a woman on the verge of a panic attack, lumbering to her seat and heaving for breath as if she had just run to the courthouse. She wore no neck brace, but to look at an aerial map of Third Street she turned her entire torso instead of merely turning her head. (Medical records show she reports numbness, tingling, and pain in her neck and shoulders since the shooting.) During pauses, she scanned the room as if she were searching for a sympathetic face.


Smith had reason to be unsettled. Haggag Mohsin was represented by Teresa Caffese, a petite, feisty pit bull of a public defender, ranked among the top 75 women litigators in the state last year by the Daily Journal, a legal newspaper.

During her cross-examination of the prosecution's star witness, Caffese seized on inconsistencies in Smith's story. At her interview with the police inspector the day after the shooting, Smith had said that Mohsin had “tap[ped] on my window, and pulled a gun out, and shot me.” But during direct examination at the trial she said he'd shot from across the street on the corner.

Caffese grilled her on the change in her story. “I know I said that he tapped on the window, but I do not recall that,” Smith said. Caffese asked when Smith had had that realization; she responded that after she got home from the hospital, she was having “nightmares … seeing him, and he was on the corner.”

Caffese attacked Smith's credibility, delving into her extensive criminal record. After Smith denied ever biting a Walgreens clerk or grabbing another by the neck while trying to get away in two separate shoplifting incidents, Caffese hauled in store employees to testify to exactly that. When asked about her most recent arrest this year for allegedly jogging away with $3,500 worth of rings from a jewelry vendor who testified that Smith later phoned back and threatened to have her kids beat the woman up: “I was falsely accused.” By the end of the second day of Caffese's cross-examination, Smith asked for a break, wiping tears from her eyes with a tissue, and swiveled around in her chair to face the back wall.

Scott Stratman, the attorney who will represent the Mohsins in the pending civil suit, complimented Caffese in the courthouse cafeteria afterward: “I thought you did what you set out to do.”

Smith wasn't the only person Caffese made look bad during the trial. In cross-examining the investigators, she exposed haphazard police work. After the shooting, the police inspector assigned to the case, Richard Daniele, interviewed Mohsin for just 17 minutes, and Smith and Hatch separately for a total of 27 minutes. No other witnesses were interviewed before police handed the case to the DA for prosecution just 24 hours later. Officers who testified conceded that they had never thoroughly searched the trunk of Smith's car or the women's purses to see whether they had, as Mohsin claimed, stolen clothing from Pop Ya Collar. Smith's car was released to her without being processed for fingerprints or measurements of the bullet holes to analyze the path of the bullet.

Caffese pressed Inspector Daniele in follow-up questions about his rush to close the case rather than corroborate Mohsin's statements: You were busy with other cases, so you couldn't follow up with whether he was telling you the truth or not? “Correct,” he replied.

When it came time for the defense to present its case, Caffese called various witnesses to vouch for Mohsin's character. Teachers from McClymonds High School in Oakland testified that Mohsin was part of an Arab minority in a student body that was more than 80 percent African American, and helped start a club after 9/11 to promote understanding between races. “I was repeatedly impressed by his restraint” in not lashing out at “towelhead” and “A-rab” remarks, said Alexander Briscoe, then a dropout prevention counselor at the school.

When Mohsin took the stand in a black pinstripe suit and burgundy shirt, his usually confident voice shrank to a mumble; the court reporter often had to ask him to speak up. He relayed the details of his past — how he had worked since high school to support himself, how he'd previously only fired an old-fashioned rifle at his wedding in Yemen, as per tradition. Loftus asked Mohsin whether he remembered telling Inspector Daniele that what he did was wrong. Mohsin answered that he did. “Anytime someone's injured, that's wrong,” he said, adding emphatically, “I wasn't intending to shoot anyone,” looking Loftus directly in the eye. Mohsin admitted that in the two times he peeked out the door before leaving the store, the suspected shoplifters had moved farther down the sidewalk. He had taken time to lock the doors, turning his back on the men who had allegedly threatened him.

And then there was the fact that he hadn't merely shown the advancing men the gun to scare them away, but had fired it. Did they see his gun? Mohsin answered that he didn't know.

Loftus also pointed out a glaring hole in Mohsin's testimony: He had never told officers that one of the two men who'd entered the store with the women had threatened to burn it down after the earlier robbery. Why hadn't he told Daniele that on the day of the shooting? “I was answering everything they asked me,” he said. “I didn't know that was the last statement I was gonna make.”

Karlene Navarro, Caffese's co-counsel on the case, later offered another explanation. “Haggag is very direct and literal,” she says. “He'll answer only what you ask and that's it. It's a little frustrating.”

In her closing statements, Loftus argued that Smith and the police were not the ones on trial. She made a point of saying that prosecutors hadn't charged Mohsin with attempted murder, but with shooting into an occupied vehicle, a felony, with an additional enhancement of personally using a firearm to cause great bodily injury. Mohsin later said that moment scared him the most, since the jury doesn't hear the potential sentence and Loftus seemed to downplay it as a “petty charge.” Set by a 1997 state legislature bill putting stricter mandatory minimum sentencing on firearm crimes, the potential sentence for the enhancement is 25 years to life. Caffese argued that the charge was “politically driven,” saying, “I don't know if Ms. Loftus wants to run for DA and votes in the Bayview are more important than justice.”


Loftus shot back that the charge was simply following the law: “Our office always takes those crimes seriously.”

It all came down to whether the jury — a conglomeration of white and Asian health care workers, construction engineers, flight attendants, and mechanics — would believe that Mohsin had acted in self-defense. Pointing Mohsin's 9mm pistol in the air several times, Loftus asked the jury “to not tell people there's a different standard of defense in the Bayview: to shoot first and ask questions later.”

When told before the trial that Loftus had never lost a firearms case, Caffese had responded, “I guess she'll be defeated this time, then,” without missing a beat, but near the end of the two-and-a-half-week trial, she didn't look so sure. She discreetly crossed her chest and kissed her thumb before Loftus started her closing arguments, and gave Mohsin a tense pat on the back before rising to start her own.

“Bad things shouldn't happen to good people trying to do the right thing,” Caffese said, her voice raw with emotion. She enunciated that “Debbie Smith is a path-o-log-i-cal liar” while writing the phrase on a whiteboard for the jury. As for Haggag, “He's a young, good, kind man trying to do the right thing in the worst possible moment of his life.”

She continued, “What I'm about to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, is something I've never done in my career, and I've been doing this for over two decades. … I have never argued, as I argue before you 12 people, that this man is an innocent man. … I fear that if I don't do enough, that if I leave something out, then an innocent man will suffer.”

If the jury members were moved, their faces didn't show it.

The two and a half years since the shooting have taken their toll on the close-knit Mohsin family. Adnan says he still fights the guilt of having his younger brother come to work in a high-crime part of the city — but not for giving him a gun to defend himself there. Haggag, meanwhile, worked a series of jobs, most recently managing an Oakland grocery store after his uncle put up a liquor store on property bond in lieu of the $200,000 bail. By the end of the trial, Haggag's wife was nine months pregnant with their second child. Mohsin said he had taken criminal justice classes, but felt that his life was on hold.

The wait was finally up on a recent Wednesday, when the jury turned around a verdict after just half a day of deliberations. “Are we ready for the jury to come in?” Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn asked.

Mohsin hunched forward in a suede jacket, his arms leaning on the table in front of him. The attorneys and Mohsin stood as the jurors entered without throwing Mohsin as much as a glance. The leader handed six sheets of paper, one for each major charge and the accompanying lesser crimes, to the court clerk to be read.

As the clerk read out the first “Not guilty,” Adnan and Adeeb threw up their hands and erupted into cries. That was the charge that could have brought a 25-to-life sentence. As the third, fourth, and fifth rolled by, tears rolled down Adeeb's face, wrenched into a knot. As the clerk pronounced the sixth and final one, Caffese gave a short, seated bow to the jury and mouthed “Thank you.” Adeeb did the same.

If the question of the trial was whether a jury will trust a convicted felon's word over that of an alleged criminal with no record, the answer is no. While some jurors said they didn't feel fully satisfied and many were frustrated by what they saw as a sloppy police investigation, they agreed they couldn't say Mohsin wasn't acting in lawful self-defense beyond reasonable doubt.

Judge Kahn asked Mohsin, who'd remained stoic throughout the verdict, whether he had anything to say to the jury. He smiled widely, looked up at the ceiling, shook his head, and wiped his face with his hands. Speechless. “I think that is his thanks,” the judge said. He served Mohsin a stern parting admonishment: “Stay miles away from any firearm. Miles away from any firearm.”

Mohsin is definitely planning to stay miles away from the Bayview. That's probably wise: Third Street has not forgotten him. When he showed up with the lawyers, judge, and police to examine the store before the trial, some local residents spotted him, said a man who identified himself as John Talley, the older brother of the man who burned the store. “What the heck is he doing out here?” Talley asked. “They was fittin' to beat his ass.” The elder Talley still seems enraged about the shooting: “Arabs got it made in the United States. I've been in jail a lot of times and I've never seen one. Now if he were a black man, he'd be in the penitentiary.”

Most in the Bayview have never heard Mohsin's version of events, and assume he was a vigilante pushed to the edge for being robbed once too often or, at the very least, a trigger-happy kid who freaked out and did something stupid. While not even other Arab store owners in the neighborhood would defend him, both the merchants and several people in the neighborhood, even John Talley, agreed that 25 years would have been too harsh, since Smith didn't die. “They don't know how it is down here,” one shopkeeper said.

After his acquittal, Mohsin told SF Weekly he doesn't regret pulling the trigger: “I didn't do nothing wrong,” he said. “I did what every other citizen would have done. … I'm not a vigilante that would just try to do stuff. I did my stuff to prevent anything from happening, and it came up to a point where there was no chance” for an alternative.


Mike Cohen, Smith's civil attorney, said his client was unhappy with the verdict: “She felt it was the jury saying it was right for him to shoot her. It just didn't feel right to her at all.”

Despite the judge's warning, Mohsin will be near firearms quite soon if he gets his way: He plans to put in his application with Oakland's police academy next month. He says he hopes his children won't have to work a day at a liquor store in their lives.

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