“Aaron Harvey first heard of UC Berkeley when he saw a TV promotion for the school as he sat in jail, facing conspiracy charges stemming from nine San Diego gang-related shootings.
He didn’t even know that UC Berkeley and “Cal,” a title he knew through sports, were the same school when he saw the TV spot seven years ago. But the promo seduced the young man, whose freedom and future were in jeopardy.
He maintained he was innocent of the charges, but he was still facing 56 years to life in prison.
“From day one, I was like, ‘I am going to Berkeley,’” Harvey said. “I think I was just telling myself that to give myself something to look forward to when you are sitting in such a dark place.”
First, he had to fight the sweeping gang murder conspiracy case targeting 33 people in two southeastern San Diego neighborhoods, including his native Lincoln Park. The fight would rally the community, make headlines and clap back at prosecutors who used an untested law that critics blasted as nothing more than guilt by association.
After several months of courtroom battles, a judge dropped the charges. Harvey was freed. Now, the 33-year-old has earned a political science degree from UC Berkeley. He graduated in May.
And along the way, he said last week, he became “an accidental activist.”
In July 2014, a swarm of police arrested him near his apartment in Las Vegas, where he’d moved two years earlier and had been attending real estate school. Suddenly, he was charged in connection with a yearlong series of gang shootings that had happened through much of 2013 and into 2014 in San Diego.
He and the other defendants were charged under a gang conspiracy law: Penal Code 182.5. It was the first time the law was being used in San Diego and possibly in California. Prosecutors argued that under the law, any documented member of a gang could be held liable for its criminal actions.
There were two cases: one charging 15 alleged members of a Lincoln Park gang in nine shootings, the other charging 18 alleged members of a Southcrest-area gang with 16 shootings, four of them fatal.
Some of the defendants were accused of firing the shots or playing a role during or afterward. Some, like Harvey, were accused because they’d been documented as gang members. The evidence purportedly tying them to the gang’s activities included posts on social media or photos and rap lyrics they’d written, which prosecutors argued promoted violence and bolstered gang status during the wave of shootings.
‘Thank God we fought it’
The arrest and the charges floored Harvey. He was 26 years old. It was the first time he learned that he’d been documented as a member of a gang in his Lincoln Park neighborhood when he was 17. It had happened during stop-and-frisks by San Diego police. He doesn’t know which stops. They were common.
Harvey was not accused of shooting anyone. He was not accused of being present at any of the shootings, or of helping to make them happen.
Eventually, most of the accused pleaded guilty to lesser charges, deals that came with shorter prison sentences. Harvey and a second man, rapper Brandon “Tiny Doo” Duncan, held out.
“Everybody signed [a plea deal] — and rightfully so,” Harvey said. “We were the not-so-smart ones for not signing. … When you are looking at life in prison, the smart thing to do would be to sign a deal, or you are gonna do life. But thank God we fought it.”
After hearings to review the evidence, Superior Court judges disagreed with how prosecutors had applied the law. In 2015, Judge Louis Hanoian found no evidence to support the charges against Duncan and Harvey, and dismissed their cases.
News of local prosecutors’ use of the controversial law brought national attention and staunch local pushback. Then-Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis said later she would not bring charges under Penal Code 182.5 again.
In a 2017 interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, as Dumanis stepped down from her 14-year stint in office, she said she’d been surprised at and frustrated by the criticism until she took a hard look at Black history.
“The history of African Americans has an impact on everything,” Dumanis said at the time. “No matter how supportive white America is, unless you have walked in those shoes, you don’t understand it. And the only way to change that is to check yourself and your implicit biases or ask for people to check you when you’re doing it.
“Because when we think we are doing something positive, like filing this case to get the people who are murdering innocent people, people within the African American community, I have done something inadvertently that [some people] view as wrong,” she said…..