A man faces a murder trial after a judge ruled today that satisfactory evidence was presented to suggest he committed a 2017 city killing.
Michael Peace was ‘held to answer’ for the killing of Mitchell Smith Jr. at the conclusion of a three day preliminary hearing held at San Francisco’s Hall of Justice.
Smith, 35, was gunned down in the late morning of New Year’s Day 2017 on Mendell Plaza in the Bayview neighborhood.
The court heard that police were led to Peace through his connection with Terrence Briggs, with whom he had been arrested the previous year. Briggs was murdered on the same block as Smith three weeks beforehand. The murder weapon was subsequently found in a home linked to Briggs.
Smith himself had been released from prison only hours earlier and a jail bracelet was found in the pocket of the jeans he was wearing when he died.
“I think the evidence based upon [witness identification] and the video at least is consistent with a conclusion that Mr Peace was the perpetrator,” said Judge Brian Ferrall this morning.
The case – which bears the hallmarks of a revenge killing – has languished for nearly seven years. Peace has been in custody since his arrest in September 2017.
SFPD Officer Chris Leong testified that he was on scene within minutes of the shooting just before 11:30am. A witness standing on nearby Oakdale Avenue told him that he saw a maroon Chrysler driven by a bald black male in his late 20s or early 30s, with broken or crooked teeth, come to halt.
The man ran toward Mendell Plaza holding both hands in his hoody as if he were holding something. Less than a minute later, he said, he heard several shots. He then saw the man running back, re-enter the car and drive off.
The unoccupied car was located 45 minutes later parked one mile from the shooting site near the junction of Kiska and Reardon Roads. Police began surveillance of the vehicle and, a further half hour later, detained two people who started to drive it: Trayvette Crawford and a family member.
Police obtained a search warrant for a nearby home with which Crawford was linked. The murder weapon – a .40 caliber Glock 23 loaded with seven rounds – was found in an attic crawlspace of the residence wrapped inside two socks and placed inside a gun case.
Officer Leong told the court that he conducted a database search of the residence which also turned-up an association with Terrance Briggs – who, he said, has been arrested with Michael Peace in 2016. The mugshot of Peace displayed crooked teeth which he linked to the witness description.
The court was shown a video from a nearby security camera, taken at the time of the shooting, which showed a person running across Mendell Plaza.
Crime scene documentation admitted as evidence described .40 caliber cartridge casings found on the ground at the scene of the murder.
A jail bracelet was found in the jeans pocket of the murder victim, Mitchell Smith Jr., and court records show that he was in court only days earlier on charges of vehicle theft and ‘hit and run’.
Trayvette Crawford – who police saw come to the car used by Peace – was called to give evidence but refused to testify substantively. On the advice of her attorney, seated beside her in court, she invoked her fifth amendment right not to incriminate herself and declined to answer 12 questions put to her by Assistant District Attorney Nathan Quigley.
Megan Pytlik, a criminalist from SFPD’s crime lab, testified that analysis demonstrated that the .40 caliber cartridge casings found on the ground at the site of the murder matched the weapon found in the attic. Analysis also confirmed, she said, that a bullet recovered by the medical examiner from the face of the victim was fired by the same weapon.
Another criminalist, Peter St Andre, testified that DNA from both Peace and Crawford was found on the grip of the firearm identified as the murder weapon and on an orange-and-blue-colored sock in which it was placed.
He said that analytical tools available at the time of the murder were insufficiently sophisticated to draw definitive conclusions. However an analysis conducted in 2020, using newly-acquired STRmix software, which better facilitates analysis of “mixed” DNA samples, did yield reliable results.
In response to defense questioning St Andre added that, while the DNA of an unidentified male was also found in the same sample which yielded DNA of Peace and Crawford, and which led to their identification, the data was insufficiently robust to be uploaded to the national CODIS database to determine if it might yield a match. The lab required a specific reference sample to compare against in order for the sample to be productively used, he said.
At the conclusion of the hearing Judge Brian Ferrall held Peace to answer for the count of murder and two other firearms counts.
“The standard here is whether the evidence would cause a person of ordinary prudence to strongly suspect a defendant to be guilty,” said the judge, observing that this was a low standard.
“What I think we have here is, certainly, strong evidence that the firearm that was recovered was the firearm that was involved in the homicide.
“And then we have strong evidence that the defendant’s DNA was found on the firearm – the firearm being located…two hours or so after the homicide occurred.”
“So, really, the question comes to down to: what about the other two contributors to the DNA on the firearm?
“And, given the video and [testimony from a police officer on behalf of a witness] Ms Crawford can be basically eliminated as a suspect. So what about the third contributor? And does that cause one to not strongly suspect the defendant’s guilt?
“I don’t think it does.
“I think the evidence based upon [witness identification] and the video at least is consistent with a conclusion that Mr Peace was the perpetrator.”
Peace will next appear on September 6 2023 before Judge Rochelle East in Department 22 for arraignment.
Peace is represented by Paul Dennison and Alexandra Carl. The District Attorney’s office is represented by Nathan Quigley.
To be notified when new stories are published, please enter your email address below or follow us on Twitter.