‘It was the perfect storm’: the fatal crash that changed criminal justice in San Francisco

<span>People gather for a memorial for Hanako Abe and Elizabeth Platt in January 2021, in San Francisco, California.</span><span>Photograph: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers/Getty Images</span>
People gather for a memorial for Hanako Abe and Elizabeth Platt in January 2021, in San Francisco, California.Photograph: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers/Getty Images

On the afternoon of 31 December 2020, as San Francisco prepared to celebrate the first New Year’s Eve of the pandemic, Troy McAlister drove a stolen car through a red light in the city’s SoMa neighborhood and hit another vehicle.

The collision sent McAlister’s car crashing into two women who were crossing the street. Hanako Abe, a 27-year-old real estate analyst, and Elizabeth Platt, a 60-year-old radio DJ who was struggling with homelessness, did not survive the hit.

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As the city mourned, Platt’s radio colleagues aired tributes, and Abe’s mother traveled from Japan to San Francisco, the focus turned to McAlister’s record.

McAlister had been in and out of prison since age 19. Local news reported he was arrested several times in the months leading up to the crash and was on parole for a 2015 robbery with a toy gun. That case could have seen him locked up for 25 years to life, but the office of the San Francisco district attorney (DA), Chesa Boudin, a former public defender elected on a pledge to reduce mass incarceration, agreed to his release after five years in jail.

Boudin, critics charged, “should have done more to keep Troy McAlister off the streets”.

The crash went on to become the most politically consequential criminal matter in recent years in San Francisco: Boudin was already facing backlash from police groups opposed to his reforms and residents and business leaders who argued his efforts were exacerbating crime. The New Year’s Eve deaths helped jumpstart a successful campaign to recall him from office and shepherd in a return to more punitive policies.

The events raise fundamental questions about the interplay of politics, public safety and the criminal legal system, highlighting how individual, exceptional tragedies can shift the trajectory of a city and its policies.

For McAlister’s defense team, as he faces trial for vehicular manslaughter, the politicization of his record has raised major questions. For months, their client was held up as a symbol of out-of-control-crime. The new DA overseeing the case is Brooke Jenkins, a key proponent of Boudin’s recall. As an assistant DA under Boudin, she downloaded documents from McAlister’s files, including his confidential rap sheet, even though she wasn’t involved in his case – a move some experts said was unlawful. She then resigned and joined the recall, frequently citing McAlister while calling for Boudin’s ouster. After the recall, she was appointed his successor.

“There was a whole apparatus clearly waiting to find some case with a tragic outcome that they could make political,” said McAlister’s public defender, Scott Grant. “In a system where there are so many thousands of cases, you can always find a tragedy where some hypothetical action by police or a DA could have been different prior.”

As the victims’ families grapple with what justice and accountability might look like, McAlister, now 48, said he has felt helpless watching the media storm unfold from jail. He’d wake up in the middle of the night screaming and crying, grappling with intense grief as he envisioned what Abe and Platt’s families were enduring. At the same time, he said he was overwhelmed and scared seeing pundits project an image of him “as the worst person in America”.


Boudin’s critics argued McAlister presented a straightforward example of why San Francisco’s criminal justice system needed a change of course. But in fact, the circumstances that led up to the New Year’s Eve crash were years in the making, and complex.

McAlister grew up in Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco, an under-resourced, historically Black neighborhood near the San Francisco Bay. At age four, he said, his mother fired a shot at his father when he was nearby, an incident he said normalized violence for him. His father was largely absent after that, and his mother worked two jobs to make ends meet, leaving him with little supervision.

McAlister started using drugs at 13, he said, beginning a lifelong struggle with substance use and incarceration. While battling addiction and using heroin as a young teenager, he repeatedly ended up in youth jails, where he remembers long periods of solitary confinement.

“When you start going to jail at a young age, it doesn’t seem like a big thing to go to jail. You don’t really care,” he said. “They don’t offer you no help to get your life together – no programs, no training, no nothing.” He attended several high schools and never graduated, and by age 19, in 1995, he was convicted of second-degree robbery.

McAlister was given two years in state prison and a “strike” under a newly passed “three strikes law” that established life sentences in many circumstances for people convicted of three felonies. The designation meant that if he racked up two more cases, including non-violent ones, he could be locked up indefinitely: “From that point on, no one ever took seriously the need to get him appropriate treatment,” said Grant, noting a teenage robbery today would probably be diverted out of adult court.

Over the next two decades, McAlister repeatedly returned to prison for drug and robbery offenses. He had no access to treatment for addiction, and each time he was incarcerated anew, his life further unraveled: “San Francisco is supposed to be a place where everyone has chances and alternatives, but that never happened for me, not once. It was always prison, prison, prison,” McAlister said. He had four children and says he did his best to stay in contact with them while imprisoned.

In July 2015, McAlister was jailed after robbing cashiers at a market, threatening them with a toy “airsoft” gun. By December, he was approved to be placed in a residential treatment program to tackle his addiction, but a judge denied his release, and he spent the next four years waiting in jail for a trial.

When Boudin took over the DA’s office in 2020, a prosecutor on the case followed Boudin’s new policy of generally not pursuing three strikes or other sentencing enhancements based on a defendant’s past, but rather prosecuting only the offense at hand. The directive, Boudin said in a recent interview with the Guardian, was based on evidence showing the three-strikes law greatly worsened racial disparities, led to many life sentences for minor offenses at a great economic cost to the state, and had little to no public safety benefit.

Boudin’s policy allowed for strikes to be considered in exceptional cases, but, Boudin recently noted, McAlister had a positive jail record after working in the laundry room, earning a high school diploma while incarcerated and securing letters of recommendation from jail staff. The maximum sentence for McAlister’s robbery charge was five years, the length of time he’d been in jail without a trial. So the DA’s office negotiated a plea agreement for the time he’d already served. A judge approved it, and McAlister walked free in March 2020 as the country was going into lockdown and as there was a push across the state to reduce jail populations due to Covid-19 risks.

He was placed in a re-entry home and he repeatedly asked his parole officer for access to drug treatment. But amid pandemic shutdowns, no help materialized, McAlister said.

Daroya McAlister, his daughter, said she and her grandmother had tried to help him get a job but he hadn’t had professional support. “He kept applying and went to interviews, but he had no experience. He felt like the world was against him,” she said. “He was trying really hard to get clean.”

Then in August, McAlister was shot in the leg while out on the street – he says he doesn’t know by whom, or why. He looked into applying for victim’s compensation – state financial aid for survivors of violence – but gave up once he learned he couldn’t receive assistance while on parole. His substance use worsened in the aftermath, he said. He was arrested several times in the coming months on suspicion of thefts and drug possession.

What would follow is a series of communication breakdowns and law enforcement missteps that saw McAlister fall through the cracks. Boudin’s office repeatedly referred his cases to parole agents, who could have revoked parole and sent him to jail or instituted restrictions such as an ankle monitor. But it’s unclear if the parole department followed up. The DA did not file new charges after those arrests because, his office determined at the time, there was not enough evidence in those cases. Parole, it said, was better positioned to handle the situation.

A week before the crash, an assistant DA asked a San Francisco police official to alert the California department of corrections and rehabilitation (CDCR) to McAlister’s most recent arrest, presumably to consider revoking his parole. But the San Francisco police department official was on vacation, the San Francisco Chronicle later reported. On 29 December, McAlister was identified as a suspect in vehicle theft in Daly City, just outside of San Francisco. Officers contacted the parole department and attempted to locate him over the next two days but were unsuccessful, a Daly City police spokesperson said. SFPD did not respond to inquiries.

On New Year’s Eve, police say, McAlister robbed a bakery before driving across the city in the stolen vehicle.


Hanako Abe grew up in Fukushima, Japan, and came to the US to go to college in Kentucky. During a vacation to San Francisco, she fell in love with the city, said her mother, Hiroko Abe. “She was left with a strong impression that people in San Francisco seemed to be really enjoying life,” Hiroko said in a recent interview, speaking through an interpreter.

“In Japan, people are all work, but I really wanted my daughter to have that opportunity to find a balance between work and having fun, so I was very supportive.”

Hanako relocated to San Francisco in 2018. In college, she had avoided befriending Japanese people to force herself to learn English, her mother said, but once in San Francisco, where she worked at commercial real estate firm JLL, she found a community of Japanese American friends. Highly athletic, she joined a running club, went on hikes and did horseback riding. During the pandemic, she took to weightlifting, often showing her mom her ab muscles on Zoom calls: “She was so full of joyful exuberance, often quite hilarious, too,” Hiroko laughed. She was very driven, too. When her mother entered her daughter’s apartment after her death, she found that she kept an essay she’d written in elementary school on her desk that said, “‘I want to be loved by everyone.’”

Elizabeth Platt, the older victim in the crash, too, was drawn to San Francisco at a young age, said her sister, Alison Platt, in an interview. Liz, who grew up on a farm in rural Michigan, loved the movies The Love Bug and What’s Up, Doc?, both set in the city. She moved to San Francisco in the late 1970s when she was about 18 and never looked back.

“What she liked about San Francisco was that it was probably more Marxist than other places – she loved the hippy lifestyle,” Alison said. “She had a romantic notion of San Francisco in the 60s.”

Platt lived in communal housing for years, her sister said, and was active in peace protests and efforts to support civil rights in Ireland, a commitment that grew out of her love for Irish punk music. She worked as a typist for Wells Fargo in the 80s, but rarely had steady or stable housing or employment after that, Alison said. As a DJ for the community radio station KXSF, she was known as the Battleaxe. In her final years, she had been partially living on the street, at times sleeping at the airport or in booths at all-night coffee places. She was angry about the tech boom, Alison said, and the gentrification of some of the city’s neighborhoods.


Days after the crash, Boudin charged McAlister with vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, leaving the scene of an accident, unlawfully taking a car and other counts.

“Although of course no one predicted this tragedy, it is true that the Daly City police, the San Francisco police, parole and my office all could have done things differently, which might have avoided this terrible outcome,” he said in a statement at the time.

Meanwhile, Boudin’s opponents sprang into action. The San Francisco police union, which had fiercely opposed Boudin’s election, directly faulted him for the tragedy: “Two people were killed on New Year’s Eve because Chesa Boudin refused to do his job, which is to hold criminals and victimizers accountable,” the union president said in a 4 January press release. The union’s “Boudin Blunders” website, which it had launched in Boudin’s first month in office, featured McAlister at the top, saying the DA allowed him to “keep terrorizing our city”.

Some prominent tech leaders who had been advocating for more aggressive and punitive responses to homelessness and crime in the city mobilized, too. On 2 January, Jason Calacanis, a prominent Silicon Valley investor, launched a GoFundMe to “Hold the DA of SF accountable” and “hire an investigative journalist to cover Chesa’s office”. On 5 January, David Sacks, a venture capitalist and Elon Musk ally, published a blogpost titled “The Killer DA”, which said Boudin had given McAlister a “sweetheart deal” in 2020.

That week, Richie Greenberg, a former GOP candidate for mayor, launched an online petition to recall Boudin from office. He soon launched a formal committee to get a recall measure on the ballot.

Greenberg’s recall failed to gather enough signatures, but a second recall group launched in April 2021, calling itself San Franciscans for Public Safety and featuring some Democratic leaders. The group, which cited McAlister’s case in its filing notice, argued that Boudin had the “wrong priorities”, did not care about victims and that his policies were contributing to burglaries, violence and the overdose crisis.

A year into his tenure, it was impossible to draw any reliable empirical conclusions about the impact of his policies on crime rates, said Kimberly Richman, chair of the sociology department at the University of San Francisco. But Boudin, the son of two leftist radicals who spent decades in prison, had worked years as a public defender and unlike many district attorneys, had no ties to law enforcement and had faced fierce critics from the start.

Meanwhile, the mood in San Francisco was grim. Businesses were struggling amid the pandemic, and homelessness and the crises of mental illness and substance use were becoming increasingly visible on the streets. As was the case elsewhere in the country, the city saw an increase in gun violence, homicides and other offenses in 2021. It was plagued in particular by reports of car break-ins, growing concerns over anti-Asian violence, and viral incidents of seemingly random assaults and “brazen” thefts. The narrative that the liberal city was out of control was repeatedly amplified by rightwing media. Critics increasingly pointed at the DA. The New Year’s tragedy became a flashpoint for resentment.

“It was the perfect storm,” Richman said. “He was a former public defender. He had sympathies for people with incarcerated parents … For some of us, that’s what made him a breath of fresh air – that he had a different background and perspective. But for others, it was an automatic source of distrust, and it didn’t take much to tip that balance even more.”

The randomness of the New Year’s collision aligned with people’s fears in a powerful way, added Anjuli Verma, a University of California, Santa Cruz, politics professor. “The imagery of this car crashing played into this idea of chaos in the city. It’s not as if Troy McAlister meant to run over these women, but it was like: here is a person who is out of control in an out of control city, with an out-of-control DA.”


In October 2021, six months after the recall effort was filed, Brooke Jenkins, a former homicide prosecutor and then an assistant DA under Boudin, accessed documents from McAlister’s files, including his rap sheet, according to the local news site Mission Local. She sent them to the personal email account of Don du Bain, another prosecutor in the office. Neither was involved in the case.

The move, several experts said, appeared to be illegal. “Improperly distributing a confidential rap sheet is not just a policy violation, it’s a misdemeanor … it is very serious,” said Steve Wagstaffe, the longtime DA of neighboring San Mateo. He said he couldn’t assess Jenkins’ liability without knowing her explanation for downloading the files, but Jenkins has declined to address why she took them.

One week after Jenkins emailed the records to Du Bain, however, they both resigned, and soon after announced they had joined the recall campaign.

In a local TV interview that month, they cited McAlister’s 2015 plea agreement. “Those women are not alive today because of that very abrupt and reckless decision that Chesa made to release Troy McAlister,” Du Bain said. Jenkins said: “Boudin lacks the desire and willingness to prosecute crime effectively in San Francisco.”

By November, recall organizers had earned enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Jenkins had become one of the most prominent spokespeople for the recall. (She also made $153,000 consulting for a non-profit affiliated with the recall campaign while calling herself a “volunteer”.) And in subsequent months, she continued to bring up the McAlister case.

“[McAlister] should have never been out in the first place,” she said at a May 2022 recall rally a month before the vote. In a KQED radio interview that month, she and Du Bain argued again that releasing McAlister had been a mistake. “It’s not so much that Chesa decided to execute a plea deal. It’s what deal he executed,” Jenkins said. “It needs to be one that’s proportionate to your criminal history and your current crime, and it needs to also put you in a position not to reoffend.”

Weeks before the vote, the recall campaign released an emotional ad featuring Abe’s mother. “I know in my heart Hanako Abe would be alive today if Chesa Boudin properly handled the Troy McAlister case,” Hiroko said in the clip.

On 7 June, San Franciscans voted to recall Boudin, with 55% in favor of his ouster. Mayor London Breed appointed Jenkins as the interim DA. Jenkins promptly rehired Du Bain.

Jenkins continued to cite McAlister as she campaigned for a full term. “There’s been a spike in crimes committed by repeat offenders and a rise in violent crimes, sadly exemplified by [McAlister],” she said on her website. Her new bail policy was meant to avoid a similar tragedy, she told reporters.

On 8 November 2022, Jenkins was elected for a full term.


There is a long tradition of American politicians and law enforcement officials pointing at specific criminal cases in political campaigns or to push for an expansion of prisons and police powers. Some have called it the “Willie Horton effect” – the tactic that even if a reform is overall successful, one high-profile failure can undo it.

The dynamic was named for the politicization of the case of William Horton, an incarcerated man in Massachusetts, convicted of raping a white woman after failing to return to prison while on a furlough in 1987. The following year, the then presidential candidate George H W Bush repeatedly blamed the crime on his rival in the race, Michael Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor at the time of Horton’s furlough.

In California, the 1993 kidnapping and murder of the 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a man with a violent criminal record fueled the passage of the “three strikes” law.

In 2015, the then candidate Donald Trump used the killing of Kate Steinle by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco to advocate for a broad crackdown on immigrants.

As DA, Jenkins has undone many of Boudin’s reforms – rescinding the prosecutions in three police shooting cases, reversing efforts to overturn wrongful convictions and long sentences, and sending more people to jail and prison. It’s a trend opponents of reform-minded DAs in other California jurisdictions would like to see take place this year as well. Progressive district attorneys in Los Angeles and Oakland are facing major challenges from opponents pushing a similar message to Jenkins’.

Grant said he hadn’t been surprised to see McAlister’s criminal record being used by the recall campaign. But, he said, in his 15 years as a public defender, he knew of no other case in which a DA had staked a significant part of a political campaign on an individual case – and then took over prosecution of the matter: “She has made her career and has continued to fundraise and campaign on the back of Troy McAlister,” he said, noting that the story remains on her website where she solicits donations.

Jenkins’ frequent citations of McAlister’s case on the campaign trail has raised eyebrows among some legal observers as well. “Even if it’s legally allowed for a DA to stay on a case despite statements made on the campaign trail, the question is what happens to the credibility of the system and the credibility of the conviction?” said Mona Sahaf, director of reshaping prosecution at the Vera Institute of Justice, a non-profit that advocates for reforms.

In a system where DAs run for office, the risk of harmful political influence on their decisions is great, she added.

Prosecutors risk prejudicing juries when they make a political story out of an ongoing case, said Kami Chavis, director of the Center for Criminal Justice Policy and Reform at William & Mary Law School: “She based her political career on this … but the ultimate goal should be for justice in a case. Anytime you have these other political considerations, that is in danger of being sacrificed.”

From jail in San Bruno, McAlister said he was saddened by Jenkins’ use of his story, and wondered what it meant for his fate: “How am I going to get a fair trial? She is going to do everything she can to make sure that she can use me as a ‘victory’, and that I never get out of jail.”

McAlister has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he could face more than 20 years in prison.

Jenkins declined repeated interview requests and did not respond to detailed questions.


As McAlister’s case moves closer towards a trial, the families of the two victims are preparing for its resolution.

Alison Platt, who lives in New Mexico, said she had struggled to process the news of her sister’s death when she got a call from the coroner’s office. As reporters started calling, she also questioned the political narrative being pushed in her sister’s name.

“It was very overwhelming,” she said. Calls for three strikes or a “tough on crime” escalation did not seem to align with her sister’s progressive values, she said: “I think she’d really bristle at the idea of a crackdown or anything authoritarian or what she’d see as oppressors and the prison industrial complex.”

Alison said she was significantly more concerned that the parole department seemed to have dropped the ball than with the decisions made by Boudin’s office, but that few seemed interested in accountability for that agency, which is not run by an elected official.

Mary Xjimenez, a CDCR spokesperson, said in an email that the parole division had made the “appropriate referrals” to ensure ”resources” were available to help “McAlister’s re-entry in the community.” Parole officials “followed all procedures including conducting investigations and holding Mr McAlister accountable by applying sanctions”, she said. She did not specify what resources had been offered or what sanctions had been applied.

Alison also said she was sympathetic to the claims of McAlister’s team that he should have gotten help earlier.

“Conservatives say: ‘These people have proven time and time again that they can’t reform their conduct, so why don’t we just lock them up for ever?’ But we’re not giving them any resources to change, so it seems like that’s where the focus should be.”

She believes Liz wouldn’t want McAlister to be locked up for life and would support him getting treatment.

When Hiroko, Hanako’s mother, got the call about her daughter’s death, she initially didn’t understand what had happened. “I thought this was just an ordinary unfortunate accident, that this was not preventable.” But she was disturbed to later learn of McAlister’s criminal record from a reporter, and she felt as if officials had not given her the full story: “It seemed Mr McAlister had been released a number of times without being reformed or having a chance to reflect on his life. It started to look more and more to me that, even though Mr McAlister did not have any premeditation or plan to kill Hanako, there was possibly prosecutorial error.”

The system, she felt, had not given him a chance to improve and fix his life each time he committed a minor offense: “I felt Boudin took away an opportunity for Mr McAlister to become a better and more productive person, and that’s why I was willing to cooperate with the recall efforts.”

Hiroko said she didn’t want to see “superficial solutions” but reforms that tackle the drug crisis, the influence of money on politics, and other social problems: “The way I see it is that McAlister is also the victim of the political system, and unless the people of San Francisco address the root cause of the problem, no change for good in public policy can happen.”

Two years later, she said, she still hopes McAlister gets help.

“Rehabilitation and reformation has to happen, and Mr McAlister cannot repeat his mistakes. There should be no more victims of Mr McAlister. If those conditions are met, I would support Mr McAlister returning to society.”

McAlister said he hoped to someday get an opportunity to prove that he is more than the person depicted in political ads. “Nothing I can say could change what happened or make things better. It’s impossible. I can’t blame society, my mom or anybody. If I could change it, I would, but I can’t. What I can do is try to get my life together and make an impact.”