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The high-profile case of a man accused of committing an anti-Asian hate crime near Oakland’s Chinatown will go to trial in 10 days in Alameda County Superior Court. The defendant, 25-year-old James Lee Ramsey, is accused of hitting 62-year-old Carl Chan in the back of the head while uttering a racial slur.
The trial comes after nearly a year of national media attention to the problem of crime and violence against Asian people. Oakland Chinatown, where robberies and assaults against seniors, shop owners, and others have increased, has been a focal point. For some, Ramsey’s case underscores the need for more police and surveillance cameras in the neighborhood, and harsher penalties for assailants.
Chan, a real estate agent and well-known community leader, is among those who have called on city officials to step up police presence in Chinatown. As president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, he has opposed budget reductions to OPD, supported plans to install surveillance cameras in the neighborhood, and recently called for Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency and send the California Highway Patrol to carry out traffic enforcement on Oakland’s streets. On April 30, the day after he was attacked, Chan spoke at a pro-law enforcement rally in Chinatown, telling his supporters that his assailant used a racial slur.
But Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods, whose office represents Ramsey, is speaking out against what he believes are false charges against his client in a politicized atmosphere.
“I’m concerned with regard to how this case is being used, and the rhetoric around these kinds of cases,” Woods told The Oaklandside in an interview. “Since this allegation occurred, there have been statements at press conferences where it appears it is being used to promote a certain agenda, to encourage more police presence in our community.”
While acknowledging the problem of violence facing Asian communities, and the seriousness of hate crimes, Woods said that there is no evidence, besides an inconsistent claim from Chan, that Ramsey was motivated by racial bias. Woods believes the district attorney has overcharged the case and said that what Ramsey needs is mental health treatment, not a lengthy prison term. Woods noted that Ramsey was diagnosed many years ago with serious mental illnesses.
The district attorney’s office declined a request to be interviewed for this story, citing a policy of not talking about pending cases. Chan did not return several phone calls and voicemail messages seeking an interview for this story.
But the polarizing questions at the center of the case (Was the assault a hate crime or the result of a mental health crisis? Should the response be prison or mental health treatment?) were on display during a preliminary hearing in June, which previewed arguments the prosecution and defense are likely to make during next week’s trial.
This report is based on the court records from that preliminary hearing, the Oakland Police Department’s report about the assault, which was obtained by The Oaklandside, and other public records and interviews.
Chan said nothing to police at first about his attacker using a racial slur
On April 29 at 3:45 p.m., Chan was walking on 8th Street near Broadway when someone came up from behind him and hit the back of his head. He fell to the ground and scraped his palms and knees. During the June preliminary hearing, he said he briefly “blacked out” but had the presence of mind to get up and take a photo of the back side of the man who struck him as he was walking away. Tips on how to respond to violent incidents were fresh in his head, he said, because he had recently organized and attended several training sessions on the topic.
Oakland police responded to the scene of the attack, and according to the police report, Chan told the officers that the man called him a “bitch” when he hit him. He showed the officers the pictures he took of the suspect: a Black man wearing an orange Giants t-shirt, blue jeans, and a backpack.
Video footage from a body camera worn by one of the responding officers, Trevor Dagenhart, was played during the court hearing. It showed Dagenhart asking Chan several times to describe everything that his attacker said, and whether Chan knew why the man attacked him. Chan told Dagenhart multiple times that the man called him a “bitch” but did not mention the use of any racial slurs.
In less than an hour, Oakland police officers spotted James Lee Ramsey, who is Black, wearing the same clothes and carrying the same backpack as the man in the photo Chan took. They arrested him and Chan identified Ramsey as his attacker.
Chan gave an interview to the San Francisco Chronicle later that day, saying he feared that he may have been singled out because of his frequent media appearances. The newspaper also quoted police Captain Bobby Hookfin, who raised the question of whether the attack was a hate crime. “We don’t know,” said Hookfin, “But we need to find out right now.”
The next day, Chan attended a rally he helped organize in Chinatown opposing Senate Bill 82, which would revise state law to prevent prosecutors from charging non-violent thefts as violent felony robberies. The rally was one of many Chan organized over the past year to draw attention to the issue of violent crimes committed against Oakland’s Asian community, to oppose criminal justice reforms, and to call for more police in Chinatown. At the rally, he told reporters he was the victim of a hate crime and that his attacker used a racial slur.
Later that day, OPD investigator Roland Aguilar called Chan for a followup interview and Chan told police for the first time that Ramsey used a racial slur, according to OPD’s report. Aguilar went to Chan’s office a week later and recorded a statement from him. Chan said that Ramsey yelled, “Fuck you Chinatown! Fuck you Chinaman!” just before striking Chan in the back of the head, and then called him a “bitch” and walked away.
On May 3, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley charged Ramsey with felony assault and a hate crime. Ramsey faces up to eight years in state prison if found guilty of the assault. The hate crime charge would add up to three more years to his sentence, if he’s found guilty. The district attorney’s decision to charge Ramsey with a felony and not a misdemeanor (which could result in a lesser sentence of up to one-year) was based on the argument that the attack could have resulted in great bodily injury because Chan was struck in the head and fell to the ground.
On June 24, the preliminary hearing was held for the case. In California, criminal cases are first heard before a judge who determines if there is probable cause to believe a person committed the crimes they’re accused of, and whether the person should face trial. At these hearings, which are open to the public, the prosecution and defense question witnesses, present evidence, and make arguments.
Deputy District Attorney Peter McGuinness asked Chan to describe how he felt during the attack.
“I was thinking about survival, so I think I was more scared than feeling hurt, even though my hands bleeding, knees bleeding,” Chan told the court. “At that moment, I was saying, am I going to make it?”
Asked why he felt that way, Chan cited the “many attacks” that have happened in Chinatown and his work with “victims of hate crimes.”
Ramsey’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Michael Wilson, raised questions about why Chan’s account of the attack changed over 24 hours. Wilson played the body camera video of Chan’s initial statement to the police, then asked Chan why he didn’t tell the police officers that Ramsey used a racial slur.
“You did not say anything to them about the word ‘Chinaman,’ correct?” Wilson asked.
“I probably did not,” Chan replied. “I don’t remember, because I knew that I was so shocked at the time, and I tried to describe and answer as much as I could.”
The prosecutor, McGuinness, told the judge that it would be impossible for any crime victim to remember every relevant detail when talking to the police, right after being attacked.
“Don’t you think for him, though, in particular, given what he told us about himself, that that would be one of the most important things that would come out of his mouth?” the judge asked, noting Chan’s role in the community as an outspoken activist who has called attention to other alleged hate crimes.
“I think it’s hard to second guess what a victim’s state of mind is right after something like this happens when they get hit in the head to the point where they get knocked to the ground,” replied McGuinness.
Wilson, Ramsey’s attorney, said that Chan looked “calm, cool, collected” during his initial interview recorded on a police body camera, and that he was “remaining admirably rational” while telling the officers what happened.
“It’s inconceivable how that wouldn’t have been the first thing that he comments on under the circumstances,” Wilson said about the alleged racial slur. Wilson told the judge he doesn’t think Chan lied, but that there was an “evolution” to his account over 24 hours.
“I’m not suggesting [there’s] evidence of some nefarious self-serving motive, but simply, the almost expected result of somebody who is focused on a particular topic area, replaying events, talking to press, talking over, and over, and over again,” said Wilson.
The judge ultimately decided that enough evidence exists to have Ramsey stand trial for the assault and hate crime. Ramsey is currently being held in Santa Rita Jail awaiting trial next week.
A long history of mental illness, including an apparent episode on the day of the attack
Two hours after the assault, OPD investigators Aguilar and Dung Le-Nguyen interviewed Ramsey. One of the first things Ramsey told the officers was that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and that he takes medication to treat these conditions. According to the police report, Ramsey said that he “feels more clear headed without his medication and has been off the medication for approximately a month.”
After the officers read him his Miranda rights, Ramsey agreed to tell them about the attack. He said he “saw an older White or Asian male and bumped into him as he was running near Broadway.” He admitted to hitting Chan with his elbow, but claimed it was an accident, and added that he was hearing “mumbling” voices at the time.
He told the investigators that he’d had a “frustrating day in San Francisco prior to arriving in Oakland,” because he was observing “half-dog and half-humans and half-cats and half-humans.”
Aguilar wrote in the police report that “Ramsey acknowledged that he is aware of the hate toward Asians, but confidently stated that he did not target the victim because he was Asian,” and that he wished to apologize to Chan.
Ramsey’s court records show that he has had severe mental health problems since an early age and has struggled to get treatment. Growing up in Sacramento County, he lived in group homes for a period of time. He later moved to the Bay Area and was living with his mother and older brother in East Oakland in 2014 when a family argument escalated and Ramsey threatened to harm his mother. He was arrested and charged with making criminal threats. His attorney argued that the charges should be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor because he wasn’t taking medication at the time and was having a psychotic episode, but a superior court judge upheld the felony count. Ramsey pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 176 days in jail and five years probation.
In 2015, he was arrested for allegedly threatening an employee of a San Leandro Safeway with a box cutter in the parking lot. A clinical social worker wrote in a letter to the court that they had conducted a mental health assessment of Ramsey, finding he’d experienced “community based trauma, trauma while incarcerated,” and that he had a “history of head trauma that was untreated.” The social worker added that Ramsey was without stable housing and was prone to paranoia and delusions. She urged the court to allow him to seek treatment.
The next year, he was arrested and convicted of threatening a San Francisco Airport police officer and sentenced to 32 months in state prison. When he was paroled in 2018, Ramsey got into more trouble. His parole agent wrote in a report that Ramsey’s “adjustment to parole has been below average,” because he had failed to check in with his agent, left group homes he was required to reside at, and admitted to using methamphetamine.
Nothing in Ramsey’s record indicates that he was ever previously accused of committing a hate crime.
But his mental health problems appear to have continued over the past two years. In 2019, he left a group home against the terms of his parole and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was arrested by BART police at Oakland’s Lake Merritt Station after getting into an argument with a group of people. According to court records, he has spent time in and around Oakland Chinatown, in part because there are services there that provide shelter and counseling.
Ramsey was frequently admitted to John George Psychiatric Hospital in San Leandro for emergency services. According to court records, he’d been admitted there at least five to 10 times over the past several years. On the night of December 23, police were called to the hospital. Staff had just discharged Ramsey, but he was refusing to leave and demanding that he be kept under an involuntary hold and given treatment. He told hospital staff that he didn’t want to go out into the world, and that if they made him, he would “damage property.” He threw a plastic trash can at a staff member and then damaged two cars in the parking lot by kicking them. Police later spotted Ramsey and arrested him and took him to Santa Rita Jail. In February, the district attorney filed felony vandalism charges against him for kicking the cars.
The vandalism case is also still pending against Ramsey.
Violent attacks in Asian communities bring calls for more policing
Violent crime has increased in Oakland Chinatown since the spring of 2020 and there have been numerous attacks against Asians, including Asian seniors, in Oakland, San Francisco, and beyond, that have drawn national attention to the issue of violence against Asian people. The Stop AAPI Hate coalition has documented over 9,000 hate incidents against Asian people since March 2020 across the U.S. Hate incidents include verbal harassment and other actions that don’t constitute a crime and can’t be prosecuted.
The California Attorney General collects data on hate crimes from all local police agencies in the state and publishes yearly reports. According to the most recent report, there was a disturbing 67% increase in racially biased hate crimes in the state in 2020, and anti-Asian hate crimes roughly doubled in number, from 43 to 89. Attorney General Rob Bonta made an appearance in Oakland Chinatown to announce the publication of the 2020 hate crime report.
Data showing hate crimes committed against Asians locally, however, are less conclusive. According to the attorney general’s report, the Oakland Police Department didn’t record any anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020. The Alameda County District Attorney filed 10 hate crimes cases last year, according to the state Department of Justice, but the office was unable to say how many of the victims were Asian.
One of the most shocking attacks in Oakland was the killing of 75-year-old Pak Ho during a violent robbery in March in the Adams Point neighborhood. Some in Oakland, including Chan, have said Ho’s case and other attacks should be treated as anti-Asian hate crimes.
“Basically almost every single incident is against Asian community, or Asians, especially our seniors,” Chan told NBC Bay Area. “So yes, I think it should be labeled a ‘hate crime.’”
The district attorney, however, found no evidence that the attack was racially motivated and did not charge Teaunte Bailey, who is Black and accused of killing Ho, with a hate crime. In March, Chan questioned the district attorney’s decision, according to a KRON TV news report. In another report, he expressed frustration with how hate crimes are defined under the law.
Some incidents described initially in the media as racially motivated hate crimes have later been shown to be something different. In February, the video of a 91-year-old man being violently shoved to the ground in Chinatown went viral and was widely described as an anti-Asian hate crime. But it was later revealed that the victim in the video was Latino, not Asian, and the alleged assailant, Yahya Muslim, was not charged with a hate crime. Like Ramsey, Muslim, who is also Black, has a long history of mental health problems, including incidents during which he allegedly attacked or threatened random people on the street.
“Hate crimes are an issue, and we must take them seriously,” Public Defender Brendon Woods told The Oaklandside. “But we have to be sure we’re also using that term and making those allegations appropriately.”
Woods said he feels that Ramsey’s case has been wrongly charged as a hate crime to “justify more law enforcement in the community, including the CHP.”
The public defender pointed to data showing that many of the inmates in Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail, who are disproportionately Black, suffer from mental health problems, and are not getting adequate care while incarcerated. If the upcoming trial of Ramsey for assaulting Chan should be about anything, Woods said it should be about getting his client into mental health treatment.
“This client should be given the opportunity to participate in behavioral health court,” said Woods, referring to a type of court that emphasizes treating mentally ill people rather than sending them to prison. “To send someone with mental health issues to prison doesn’t make our community any safer. They’ll be released at some point in time. Their issues will not have been addressed and it’ll be an endless cycle of harm.”
Although District Attorney O’Malley declined to talk about the Ramsey case for this report, she did speak at a press conference in July about the issue of violence facing Oakland’s Asian communities.
“These perpetrators are ruthless, and they are aggressive, particularly in the streets of Chinatown thinking they are immune from being caught,” she said in a press statement. “We have to put a stop to that. We must work together to identify, arrest and prosecute these perpetrators that are particularly preying on elder Asian Americans and on members of the AAPI community before another death, injury, or trauma occurs.”
O’Malley appeared along with Chan at the rally on July 26, where she said her office is prepared to charge enhancements and hand down stricter punishments for people who commit violent acts.
Ramsey’s trial begins Aug. 30 in downtown Oakland’s René C. Davidson Courthouse.