The Antioch man accused of the brutal slayings of two San Francisco jewelry store employees in July could have been put in jail two years earlier by a judge who acknowledged he was a public threat.
Instead, Barry White Jr. -- who was facing charges of assault with a deadly weapon and resisting arrest after allegedly trying to run down a police officer in Antioch -- posted bail in August 2011 and went back on the street. The case was pending at the time of the killings.
Now, a family member of one of the victims is expressing outrage at the decision that allowed White to go free. But a trio of law professors says the judge acted appropriately, with one calling the decision "perfectly reasonable."
Contra Costa Judge Lewis Davis seemed to concede some concerns about White at the time he declined a prosecution request to revoke White's bail. Arguing that the charges against White were a "disincentive for him to commit any other violations of the law," Davis said at the Dec. 8 court hearing, "I may be mistaken, but I hope I'm not."
Less than two years later, White, 23, is in custody again, accused of murdering two people and critically injuring a third at the San Francisco jewelry store Victoga, in the GiftCenter & JewelryMart on July 12. Prosecutors said White had accused the Victoga employees of overcharging him on an earlier purchase.
San Francisco assistant district attorney Scot Clark said surveillance footage showed White shooting the jewelry store owner, who survived, and taking a knife and fatally cutting 35-year-old employee Khin Min from "ear to ear." Another store employee, 51-year-old Lina Lim, was found nearly decapitated.
White fled to a nearby restaurant and surrendered after firing at six San Francisco police officers until he ran out of ammunition, police said. He has been charged with 16 felony counts, including two counts of murder. He pleaded not guilty July 31; his next court appearance is Sept. 24.
Only four years ago, White had aspirations of becoming an emergency medical technician, his attorney, Steve Taxman, said. White had a job at the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, and things appeared to be going well.
That all changed on Aug. 29, 2009, when White and his friends were kept out of a party in Antioch and one of those friends brandished a shotgun at the bouncer, according to court documents. A police officer tailed White's fleeing car to an Antioch parking lot.
From there, accounts differ. Prosecutors say White tried to run the officer down, and the officer responded by firing four shots into the Nissan, hitting White in the head and back. White also refused orders to put his hands in the air and get out of the car, prosecutors say.
Taxman said White did not try to run anyone over and countered that White never knew he was fleeing a police officer, and that no one gave him medical aid for 90 minutes after he was shot.
"His life changed forever that day," Taxman said. "He's been victimized by the system."
White filed a claim against the Antioch department in February 2010. Three months later, he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer and resisting arrest for the 2009 chase. After posting $125,000 bail he filed a federal lawsuit.
It was at White's July 2011 preliminary hearing where "pandemonium broke loose," Taxman said.
White's father, 44-year-old Barry White Sr., allegedly interrupted a testifying detective, calling him a liar. The younger White was accused of threatening that detective as his father was being taken into custody, and the son was charged with threatening a police officer and taken into custody. He and his father were also charged with resisting arrest.
The Contra Costa District Attorney's Office tried in August 2011 to keep White behind bars on $120,000 bail for the courtroom outburst, an amount White's family could not afford, Taxman wrote in a court filing. Davis ordered White's bail lowered to $5,000, and White bailed out, according to court documents. Prosecutors tried again the following December to have White's bail revoked.
"I think these incidents show that he's unwilling to respond to authority, and charges were filed," deputy district attorney Kevin Bell argued.
Taxman countered at the time, "I think Mr. White knows that he's on a thin leash until this has been resolved, and even after it's been resolved. He's not going anywhere. He will be in court and he's not going to be committing new offenses."
The judge ruled in White's favor and he again avoided jail.
"I'm convinced from what happened in court both in this case and around this case ... that he's aware of what the consequences would be here," the judge ruled. "Mr. White, I hope you don't prove me wrong."
In the two ensuing years, White's case has moved slowly through the system. On Aug. 8, a judge issued a bench warrant for White's failure to appear on the Contra Costa charges, as he was already incarcerated in San Francisco on suspicion of the murders.
Annie Sin, of San Francisco, a cousin of JewelryMart victim Lina Lim, said she was "very upset" upon hearing White had been free before the killings, despite having a serious felony case pending.
"This mistake cost two innocent lives and hurt a lot of family members," she said. "My first thought was my cousin shouldn't be dead and the judge made a stupid decision."
However, three UC Berkeley law professors said the judge acted appropriately.
"What the judge did was perfectly reasonable in my judgment," said UC Berkeley law professor Malcolm Feeley. "It's just one of the tragedies with a criminal justice system that presumes innocence before guilt and allows bail. Some people take advantage of that."
Criminal law professor Frank Zimring questioned why White's 2009 criminal case had not been litigated more promptly.
"Why the hell wasn't this case disposed of years ago?" he said. "If you want to remove him from the streets, go convict him."
Officer-involved shooting investigations must follow a certain time-consuming protocol, deputy district attorney Bell said. It never gained much speed after that.
Because White was out on bail early in the case and waived his right to a speedy trial, his preliminary hearing proceeded on the slow track.
"This has been an atypical case," Bell said.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.