‘We’re dealing with a disturbed mind here,’ says judge of SF synagogue shooting suspect
“It’s a form of prayer.”
That’s how a San Francisco police officer recapped what Dmitri Mishin told him he was doing the evening of Feb. 1 when he walked into a Russian Jewish synagogue and opened fire with a gun that shoots blanks.
The testimony this week from Sgt. Michael Zhang came on the first day of a preliminary hearing, a juryless proceeding where a judge decides which charges brought by prosecutors will stick. The hearing was the first time that prosecutor Jamal Anderson and public defender Olivia Taylor presented arguments at length in the case, as competing narratives emerged from witness testimony that was at times peculiar, and often emotional.
Presiding Superior Court Judge Loretta M. Giorgi affirmed the bulk of the charges brought against 51-year-old Mishin, but in a move that complicated the narrative brought by prosecutors and significantly changed the complexion of the case, Giorgi tossed out hate crime charges, determining they were not sufficiently supported. Mishin was arrested on Feb. 3, two days after walking into the one-room Schneerson Center, an Orthodox gathering place in the Richmond District, and shooting between six and eight rounds of blanks while a group of mostly seniors sat eating and learning.
Hate crime charges, known as “enhancements,” are appended to already existing crimes, but do not constitute crimes in and of themselves. In the Mishin case, the enhancements, added to felony charges for interfering with religious worship, had been held up by District Attorney Brooke Jenkins as symbolic of the city’s tough tack on bias-motivated crimes.
“I understand how deeply disturbing this event was,” the judge said. But in her view, Anderson did not produce enough evidence showing hate was a “substantial motivating factor” behind Mishin’s act.
Surveillance footage of the incident, which the judge called “bizarre,” did not contribute to claims of a bias motivation. In fact, it did more to show Mishin behaving in a way that appeared “affable” — he began by chatting with those gathered, and afterward waved goodbye.
“We’re dealing with a disturbed mind here,” the judge said.
‘Traveling in my mind’
The shooting scared and deeply unsettled many who had gathered for a study session about the life of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, according to Rabbi Bentziyon Pil. In evocative testimony on the hearing’s first day, Pil, wearing a black kippah and raincoat and a mask over his white beard, testified that when Mishin started firing, “I thought, maybe these are the last seconds of my life.”
Mishin’s mental state loomed over the proceedings, although no witnesses were called to testify to it directly. At one point Taylor, the public defender, said Mishin was “heavily intoxicated” during the incident. As to Mishin’s motivation and intent, she posited there may have been an “absence of intent whatsoever.”
Witnesses said he uttered the words “Mossad” and “Haifa” while inside the room. And interviews with police, recounted during the hearing, suggested Mishin made nonsensical statements at the time of his arrest. Taylor, questioning an officer on the stand and reading from police records, asked him to confirm whether Mishin said, “I live in a submarine.” At another point Taylor read from the report that Mishin, asked where he lived, responded “I have no idea, I’m traveling in my mind everywhere.”
Mishin had been undergoing outpatient mental health treatment but had not been following his treatment regime recently, multiple people said.
Meanwhile Anderson, the prosecutor who handles hate crimes for Jenkins’ office, argued that bias was implicit in the act itself. He said it was not the first time Mishin had been to the Schneerson Center — days earlier a Twitter account linked to Mishin published a video of a small fire burning outside, on Balboa Street.
“The defendant did not go into a grocery store, or a movie theater, or a cafe” and start firing, Anderson said. “He went into a synagogue.”
Anderson introduced evidence showing Mishin’s interest in Nazism, including multiple photos in which he is wearing a World War II-era Nazi uniform. Defense pointed to Mishin’s performance as an actor in the 2010 movie “Grave Dawn,” arguing that the photos were not evidence of a belief in Nazi ideology but rather evidence of an interest in acting.
Anderson also introduced into evidence a photo of Nazi propaganda posted on the Twitter account the day before the shooting. The photo contains a stereotypical caricature of a Jew, with a bulbous nose and features fixed in a grimace. It says “Achtung – Jude!” German for “Danger – a Jew!” Also, in the days immediately following the shooting, the account posted a handful of the Nazi uniform photos. In one a man who looks like Mishin holds a grenade.
“You can’t set aside what he posted on Twitter,” Anderson said.
While defense argued Mishin’s posts did not contain “commentary,” Anderson said, “posting Nazi fascist propaganda one day before shooting [in a synagogue] is the commentary,” as is posting images in a Nazi uniform after.
“We don’t need to dig deeper than that,” he said.
In California, hate crime enhancements do not come with a predetermined penalty. Rather, they give judges discretion to enhance penalties.
Giorgi held the two felony counts, as well as a misdemeanor for “disturbing a religious meeting.” She also certified six misdemeanors for brandishing an imitation weapon “in such a way as to cause a reasonable person apprehension and fear of bodily harm.”
The judge dismissed three other counts of brandishing a weapon because the three relevant witnesses said they were not afraid when Mishin pulled out the gun, only “shocked.” Giorgi said being scared was an element required for that charge.
The judge also discussed broadly the climate of antisemitism in the country, and attacks targeting Jews in synagogues.
Still, the evidence was not sufficient to show Mishin harbored antisemitic or neo-Nazi views, the judge decided.
‘The very definition of a hate crime’
In emotional testimony, Mishin’s mother, Ludmila Mishina, a slight woman wearing spectacles and a blazer, testified to her son’s character.
“He is a peaceful man,” she said.
She added that she grew up in the Soviet Union in a city with no synagogue or Jewish life, but that her mother was born a Jew. (That makes her and Dmitri technically Jewish according to Jewish law.)
No evidence was presented showing Mishin practiced Judaism or identified with the religion. At one point his mother said he wanted to be a priest.
After Giorgi announced her ruling, Mishin’s lawyer requested he be released from custody. The judge refused, saying “he could put himself at further risk, or put others at further risk.”
Speaking to the risk he might still pose, Giorgi said the incident could have been worse. When police searched Mishin’s home at the time of his arrest, they found a number of weapons incapable of firing real bullets. But they also found what appeared to be a functional rifle, and live ammunition.
“We are lucky that wasn’t the weapon he took with him that night,” she said, not ruling out the possibility that Mishin could be released pre-trial at a later date, provided a suitable situation for his care was in place.
In a statement to J. Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League’s San Francisco office criticized the judge’s ruling vis-a-vis the hate crime enhancements.
“The judge’s decision to drop the hate crime charge is deeply disappointing and disregards the evidence of the defendant’s intent,” the statement from regional director Seth Brysk said. “There is ample proof that [Mishin] intentionally targeted this institution and these individuals because of their Jewish identity; the very definition of a hate crime.”
Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J.