Update: After only four hours of deliberations, a jury convicted Mia Sagtoe of murder.
It was a crisp autumn afternoon in the Tenderloin the Monday accused killer Mia Sagote's fate was turned over to a jury.
A man pushed a cart full of precariously stacked pumpkin pies toward St. Anthony's, parting a path through the neighborhood regulars. Nearby, a tall, frail woman peed in the gutter with her pants down, bunched at the ankles, while ripping pieces off a brown paper bag. Some men heckled her, others offered drugs to people passing by.
Nearly seven years ago, a few blocks away on Jones Street, Leslie "Jill" May, a well-known Tenderloin denizen, was snatched off the street, taken to Candlestick Park's overflow parking lot and burned alive.
On Monday, in the Halls of Justice, Mia Sagote's defense attorney made his closing arguments; Sagote is accused of killing May.
The death of May was one of the city's most heinous crimes, according to prosecutors, police, and just about anyone who's heard the story. Even defense attorneys agree. It's a grizzly tale with a colorful cast of drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes and addicts. Sagote slung crack in the Tenderloin and lived with her mom in "Double Rock," the Alice Griffith housing project. Meanwhile, 49-year-old May lived on the streets of the Tenderloin, working as prostitute addicted to crack and heroin.
On the morning of Jan 12, 2007, prosecutors claim that Sagote, accompanied by Leslie Siliga, drove around the Tenderloin looking to kidnap May and teach her a lesson for ratting on them. The day before, May had filed a police report after Sagote allegedly beat her, stripped her clothes, and left her on the street naked and dope sick. The beat down was over a debt: May's pimp, who had fathered three children with with, owed Sagote money. After they allegedly snatched May up on Jones Street between Geary and O'Farrell, the three drove off, stopping first at a gas station, then to an isolated parking lot near Candlestick Park where May was doused with gasoline and burned alive, according to Assistant District Attorney Michael Swart.
Four days later, at around 4 p.m., a woman walking her dog found May's charred remains.
Sagote and Siliga were arrested in the following weeks. Siliga later struck a plea deal with the prosecution and testified against Sagote.
Michael Gaines is a veteran defense attorney, but even with years of experience, defending Sagote must have been an uphill battle. The prosecution had motive, Siliga's testimony fingering the defendant, incriminating phone calls made from jail, and cell phone towers placing Sagote in the Tenderloin as well as the gas station in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood around the time of the kidnapping and murder.
The "lynch pin" of the defense, Gaines said in his closing argument, was refuting the prosecutions timeline of events. Cell towers place Sagote's phone in the Tenderloin at 9 a.m., the time Swart said May was kidnapped. Even though Sagote might have been there at that time, Gaines argued, May's abduction didn't occur until 11 a.m. based on eye witnesses testimonies. The witness, a Tenderloin resident, was walking down Jones Street when she heard a familiar voice scream, turned, and saw May forced into a car at about 11 a.m. or possibly noon. The witness identified Siliga, but couldn't see the driver. After coming forward, the witness entered in to a witness protection program, but died of substance abuse-related symptoms before the case went to trial.
Gaines argued that Sagote couldn't have kidnapped May, because at 11 a.m. Sagote's cell phone placed her in the Bayview Hunters Point, and Gaines argued that she was at her home in the Alice Griffin housing project.
"You can't be in two places at once," Gaines said, adding that if she wasn't there to kidnap May, she couldn't logically be the one who burned her to death.
Another point of contention for the defense was Siliga. Gaines said her testimony was riddled with lies, and her confession was coerced by the police with the understanding that if she talked she would get leniency.
"You're going to die by lethal injection and your boys will never see you again," a police inspector told Siliga during questioning. Siliga, 37, pleaded guilty to kidnapping and voluntary manslaughter. In exchange for her testimony, Siliga will only serve 14 years and four months, instead of life in prison. The sentence starts from the time she was arrested in 2007 and she will do at least 85 percent of the time behind bars. Gaines said she will be released in her mid 40s, what he calls early middle age.
Swart in his rebuttal accused the defense's closing argument as parsing out the evidence and not examining it as a whole. He said the defense was akin to "throwing it all up on the wall and hoping something sticks."
He said some of the witnesses got the time wrong, but that doesn't mean Sagote's innocent; the rest of the testimonies and evidence were corroborated. "The evidence is so overwhelming when you put it all together," Swart said, nearing the end of his rebuttal.
In a sing-song rhythm, his voice rising and falling, bordering on whiny, Swart attacked the defense for not even addressing the question of motive, calling them "silent in the face of accusation."
Now that the trial has wrapped, the jury will deliberate.