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Hit-and-run defendant Popal makes first court appearance

By Brent Begin, Bay City News Service

September 6, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) - A 29-year-old man accused of running down over a dozen people on the streets and sidewalks of San Francisco last Tuesday made his first appearance today in a packed Superior Court room.

Omeed Popal, of Fremont, remained out of sight as his defense argued that cameramen and artists should not be allowed to photograph, video or sketch his face because it would influence a jury.

Judge Donna Alyson Little agreed that for this initial evidentiary hearing, photographers would only be able to capture generic shots of his clothing and feet.

"The defendant's rights are paramount, of course," Little said.

Deputy Public Defender Sandy Feinland also argued for a gag order to be issued, barring police from releasing any part of their report to the media. Little did not grant the order, which she and Deputy District Attorney Jim Thompson called too broad, but she did order that police not release information to the public.

"I know there's been a lot of media coverage in this case," Little said. "My big concern ... is that the police has been leaking parts of police reports."

Popal, of Fremont, is facing life in prison if convicted of 18 felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon, a felony count of battery on a peace officer causing injury, and a felony count of reckless evasion from police.

The charges stem from an Aug. 29 incident in which Popal's vehicle struck at least 14 people on city streets and sidewalks during a busy afternoon.

Popal, wearing red clothing and chained at the waist and feet, stared straight ahead with dropped eyelids as he entered the courtroom, which was filled with crying family members. He rested his hands on the podium and leaned in to whisper with Feinland, who entered a not guilty plea, which was later rescinded.

Little then called both Feinland and Thompson into chambers as Popal waited in the courtroom. Popal, less than 5 feet 7 inches tall with a sturdy jaw jutting under a narrow mustache, put one hand up in a strange gesture and turned to face the spectators.

A bailiff moved to block him and he turned back around and hung his balding head and began reading material on the podium.

When counsel returned, the not guilty plea was stricken and both sides agreed to delay the arraignment again until Friday when a more complete psychiatric evaluation becomes available.

After the hearing, Popal's 31-year-old cousin Mihdi Mirzada said his family has had trouble sleeping and working since Popal was taken into custody.

"I saw a different side of him," said Mirzada, who hadn't seen his cousin since last week. "I saw someone who needed help."

Two relatives of San Francisco resident Leon Stevens, a man whose legs were broken and who suffered a hip fracture when he was run down that afternoon at Sutter and Steiner streets, also watched the proceedings today.

Sheena Young, Stevens' niece, sobbed uncontrollably when Popal entered the courtroom. She said her uncle is not mad at him for what he did and his prayers go out to him and his family.

"I felt real bad for him," Young said of Popal. "When you see the person, it's no longer a nightmare."

Popal is also expected to be tried in Alameda County for vehicular manslaughter stemming from a fatal hit and run that happened that day. He is being held on no-bail status.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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