2018 Writing Finalist

Marcella Mercer

University of Nebraska-Lincoln
$1,500 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

The attorney of Mario Woods, an African American man shot and killed by San Francisco police in 2015, will be pursuing criminal charges against the officers involved, despite the city attorney’s decision that their actions were justified.

John Burris, who represents Woods’ family, already filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city three years ago. But at a press conference Monday morning, Burris cited a “change in the climate of justice” for giving him renewed hope in a criminal case.

On Dec. 2, 2015, five San Francisco policemen shot 26-year-old Woods, who was armed with a knife and refusing to obey commands. He was suspected of a recent stabbing.

Before being shot, Woods had been pepper sprayed and struck with bean bag rounds. After his death, a toxicology report revealed he had been under the influence of methamphetamine and other drugs at the time, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

An autopsy found that Woods received at least 20 bullet wounds, including many in his back. The location of these injuries, along with video footage of the incident, shows that the officers’ actions were excessive, Burris said.

In 2016, the city attorney’s office said police had acted lawfully to protect themselves and bystander.

Around the same time, a federal investigation began to look into the city’s police department, at the urging of former Mayor Ed Lee.

Now, the timing might be finally right to try for criminal charges, Burris said. He believes that Xavier Becerra, who stepped into the position of California Attorney General early last year, might see things differently than others have.

“He has certainly given the indication that he is willing to look at these cases,” Burris said.

While multi-million dollar civil settlements are not unheard of against police departments, officers are rarely convicted on criminal charges.

Philip Stinson, a professor and researcher of police crime at Bowling Green State University, said there are around 900 incidents of police shooting and killing people each year.

But since 2005, he found that only 86 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter. Less than half of those have been convicted of some crime.

“You have juries that are reluctant to guess the potentially life and death split second decisions of a law enforcement officer,” Stinson said.

Burris said that there may not be enough evidence that the officers tried to murder Woods, but voluntary manslaughter charges should be “strongly considered.”

While the suit against the city will continue to move forward, criminal charges touch a different nerve in communities incensed by these types of shootings, he said.

“The civil case is not as rewarding,” he said. “It’s what I can do, but people want more than that.”

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He knows the spots in Oakland better than anyone else.

They’re beside playgrounds, on street corners and in the middle of the road. Another’s at Fruitvale Station, six miles from his home, where palm trees sway through Plexiglas windows and the floor’s been repainted.

In the 90s, when he wanted people to start paying attention, he drove a writer around town to point them out — the places where police threw men to the ground, stripped them in the middle of the street or shot and killed them for walking while black.

At least, that’s the way he tells it.

“The hard part is: can I prove it?” he said.

John Burris, the Bay Area’s most notable civil rights lawyer, has made it his life’s purpose to do so. Early in his career, he thought there’d be outrage if he could just shine a light on the injustices minorities faced at the hands of those sworn to protect them.

Decades later, there’s been some of that. But his phone keeps buzzing. Black blood keeps bleeding.

“John’s always said he wants the cops to put him out of a job,” Cheryl Amana-Burris, his wife of 15 years and North Carolina Central School of Law professor, said.

That won’t happen anytime soon.


Today, John Burris demands attention. He dresses sharply: crisp suit and a purple pocket square, purple paisley tie and a purple-bordered watch. His curly brown hair is neat and trim.

But there’s blue tennis shoes on his feet.

Even as a child, he had to hit the ground running. What he remembers most about being the only black kid at his high school, are all the days he spent in a book, dreaming about escaping off into the world beyond him.

Born in Vallejo, California in 1945, he grew up working in fields and as a janitor to help support his five siblings. His parents moved to the West Coast as teenagers from Oklahoma sharecropping families.

Imogene Burris, his late mother, never had more than a middle school education, Cheryl said. Yet, John valued her intelligence. His biggest fan, she came to his trials and watched the jury. Then, she relayed to her son what she read on their faces.

But before John made his way into court, an uncle encouraged him to become an accountant. He quickly found it wasn’t like him to stay quiet and punch numbers.

The best day of that career was the one when he quit.

In 1973, he graduated from the University of California Berkeley School of Law. Then, a firm in Chicago scooped him up.

California soon called him back. In 1979, his experience working at the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office helped land him a job as an independent investigator on a career-shaping case. Fourteen-year-old Melvin Black, an African American kid from Oakland, had been shot and killed by police.

The community threatened to boil over with unrest, so higher ups expected John to exonerate the cops, Cheryl said.

Instead, he filed a 10-page report determining that the shooting was unjustified.

“I don’t think the mayor spoke to him again,” she said.

Philip Stinson, a professor and police crime researcher at Bowling Green State University said in any big city, there’s only a “handful” of civil rights attorneys. It’s difficult business, both personally and financially.

“You’ve got to win more than you lose to make a buck,” he said.

John has certainly won his fair share of multi-million dollar settlements. His clients have included Rodney King and Tupac Shakur, among many others. Yet he doesn’t ignore the smaller grievances, presented by all types of people — as long as there’s a case to be made.

After winning a negotiated settlement against the “Oakland Riders,” a group of four officers who planted evidence to score arrests, Burris pushed for reform within that police department.

Catherine Whitney, who wrote a book with John about police misconduct against minorities, said he’s always spoken up for departmental oversight and accountability. He advocates pulling problems up by their roots, she said.

“All of this has reached, unfortunately, a new prominence today,” she said. “Cases happen all the time, so John keeps going.”


Back in Oakland’s tree-green hills, the sun rises quietly.

With Cheryl home for the summer, she and John head out each morning for 6 a.m. walks.

To reach their front door, they pass a long table. It’s arranged with as many pictures of their family as they could squeeze onto it.

Often, some of the nine kids and 19 grandchildren in their blended family will be visiting, sleeping in an extra room. Four of their children are lawyers, like them.

After breakfast, John retreats to his office, the one with the sliding glass door to the pool. For around 12 years, he’s seated young black men around the green-blue waters in the summers. It’s the kick-off to an annual mentorship event.

He’s gone out to speak to kids too, even at Bishop O’Dowd High School, where his twin grandchildren attend. Students need to know the life-saving importance “yes sir’s” and “no sir’s” could have with the police.

As John got older, his focus expanded further and further beyond the courtroom, beyond individual stories, and into another generation which he hopes will benefit from his efforts.

That’s because he never forgot that his life is made from the work of his parents and those before them.

People around him ask him how he hasn’t burned out after all these years. Yes, he’s stepped back some. By mentoring other lawyers in his firm, he’s divided his burdens.

But in this relay, he wants to hold onto the baton until the very last second he can.

“I’m moving it back,” he said. “And my guys are running up beside me and I’m going to pass it to them.”

So a little after noon, he is ready to get to his office.

John Burris has work to do.

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Beyond the sidewalk tent encampments, next door to the Golden Gate Theatre and up four flights of stairs, splotches of green-blue paint drip down the walls and onto a sheet cake of rugs. The remnants of paintings, they’re the mark made by artist Hugh Leeman after 14 years in his Tenderloin apartment.

Against another wall, lies a new adaptation to his changing community: a homemade, foam-covered board. At night, Leeman squeezes it into his bay window. It muffles the grind of early-morning construction. Two 12-story apartment complexes are cropping up nearby.

For years, artists flocked to the gritty, central San Francisco neighborhood for its affordable rent and diverse community.

But as gentrification seeps into one of the city’s last working class neighborhoods, the future of these creatives hangs in the balance.

“As much art that is going on now in the Tenderloin, it’s a pale comparison of what it was before,” Leeman said.

Big tech names like Spotify and Twitter have already moved into the 50 square-block area. Along with them, they’ve brought thousands of workers.

Most of those employees don’t live there, yet. In recent history, the Tenderloin’s been best known for its high crime and poverty rates.

Broken windows still gape from abandoned businesses. Brawls erupt on street corners in the middle of the day. Charities kindly post flyers asking those entering to refrain from using drugs inside.

Among all the area’s other issues, the district containing the city’s largest homeless population also includes the neighborhood.

It’s also difficult, if not impossible, to legally replace many older buildings with modern, more expensive apartments. Nearly 80 percent of the area’s housing is rent-stabilized. Community organizations have fought for decades to prevent their demolition.

Leeman’s apartment is too. Like many other creatives, he lives in one of the neighborhood’s iconic single resident occupancy hotel rooms turned studios.

In 2005, after traveling the world, he stopped in San Francisco on a layover, found a place in the Tenderloin and never left.

Three years ago, Hanmin Liu, a San Francisco native and cofounder of the community research group, the Wildflower Institute, wondered how many artists like Leeman lived or worked in the Tenderloin’s buildings.

With a team of locals, he and others from the organization knocked on doors to survey and interview creatives across the neighborhood.

Census data indicated around 300 artists in the area, he said. But in half a year of canvassing more than 30 buildings, they found more than double that living or working there.

Many of these artists had disabilities and remained hidden until someone came to them, he said.

“What we found is, by and large, they’re in a process of healing and resilience,” Liu said.

“They’re using this medium to help them become clear about their inner world and their outer world. That’s probably why there’s so much art.”

In a place with a bad reputation, this data is significant.

“When we know that there’s 650 artists every day doing art… it changes the narrative of the Tenderloin,” Liu said. “That will invoke and stimulate change in the right direction.”

Early on in Leeman’s move to the city, he realized he was lonely in his new neighborhood. So he started walking the Tenderloin’s streets, offering homeless people cigarettes or other small gifts to draw their likenesses on the walls above their heads. The end result was a black and white series named “Faces of my Friends.”

Nearly all of this work has been knocked down or painted over by now.

But when Leeman walked down a street the other day, he noticed that there’s one face still around, after all this time.

And his art exists elsewhere too. Leeman printed the images on T-shirts and gave them to the people he drew to sell. He gave more to another woman who needed money for fare to visit her injured son. Over time, this connection with his neighbors started his “love affair” with the Tenderloin, he said.

Making artists as visible as their art could help preserve them. That’s the base idea of the survey, Liu said, to bring light to this resource and demonstrate its value.

He doesn’t believe people should stop progress. Yet there’s danger in losing the things that give a community character and compassion, he said.

“The norm [of the Tenderloin] doesn’t exist in Pacific Heights,” he said. “It doesn’t exist in Russian Hill. This is the neighborhood where you can be whoever you want to be.”

“It’s a place where you can discover yourself.”

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