Popal found not guilty in 2006 hit-and-run case

Omeed Aziz Popal, 31, of Fremont, has remained in custody in a San Francisco jail ever since his arrest on Aug. 29, 2006, when earlier that afternoon he ran down more than a dozen pedestrians on various city streets and sidewalks of northern San Francisco with a sport utility vehicle.

The episode lasted about 15 minutes, before Popal's black Honda Pilot was boxed in by police cars in the city's Laurel Heights neighborhood.

The victims' injuries ranged from minor scrapes to one woman who suffered major injuries and is now a quadriplegic.

In court this afternoon, Judge Carol Yaggy ruled that Popal had been legally insane at the time of the crimes, and ordered that Popal be sent to a state mental health facility, where he will stay for a maximum of 55 years and four months, under the terms of a plea agreement reached by attorneys.

District Attorney Kamala Harris said after the hearing that Popal, who entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, "essentially admitted to his conduct, which was outrageous and clearly life-threatening."

"I believe that this is the appropriate outcome to a horrific case," Harris said.

The San Francisco attacks happened about 45 minutes after Popal allegedly fatally struck 54-year-old Stephen Jay Wilson in Fremont.

San Francisco prosecutors had charged Popal with 16 counts of attempted murder, 16 felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon, one felony count of battery on a peace officer and one felony count of reckless evasion from police.

Popal is still awaiting trial in Alameda County on one count of murder for the Fremont incident, plus a use of a deadly weapon clause for allegedly using his car to kill Wilson.

Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff said today that the San Francisco outcome is not binding in Alameda County because it is a separate case.

Harris said Popal will be "likely confined for life in a state mental health facility" and added that Alameda County prosecutors "will do I'm sure the appropriate thing."

Defense attorney Sandy Feinland said Popal's family, who attended every hearing in the case to support him, were pleased with the outcome.

"I think that they're happy that he's going to get help rather than prison," based on the results of the San Francisco case, Feinland said.

"And we hope that Alameda County treats him fairly as well," he added.

After his arrest the afternoon of the attacks, Popal confessed to San Francisco police about the crimes, telling them in a recorded interview that "I was going to hit people today" and that he "was planning to just take people's lives."

Popal told detectives he hit Wilson because "he used to flip me off sometimes." He also told them he came to San Francisco planning "to donate my heart," adding that he didn't want to hurt himself but he wanted to give his "good heart" to someone.

About a week after being found competent to stand trial in November 2006, San Francisco sheriff's deputies prevented him from hanging himself with his sweatshirt inside his jail cell.

Feinland said today that Popal has a documented history of severe psychiatric disorders, and that evaluations by two court-appointed doctors confirmed that Popal was suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and auditory and visual command hallucinations at the time of the incidents.

Feinland said Popal was incapable of understanding that what he had done was wrong.

Feinland noted during Popal's preliminary hearing in December that he also gave a series of false confessions to police after his arrest, including that he had killed his family the night before, that he had an AK-47 assault rifle in his car, and that he had stabbed a man to death five years before in San Francisco, all of which were untrue.

Popal returns to court in San Francisco Aug. 21 for the receipt of a report from the county mental health officials as to the appropriate treatment and facility where he will be placed.

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