From: Mission Local
By: Eleni Balakrishnan, 03/07/2022
After four days of deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict Monday acquitting Police Officer Terrance Stangel of three charges for beating Dacari Spiers with a baton in 2019.
The decision was read before a courtroom full of police officers. Stangel’s mother breathed a sigh of relief and his attorney, Nicole Pifari, hugged her client after the verdict was read.
“We’re happy that the jury took their job so seriously, and we think that the verdict is the right one,” Pifari said after leaving the courtroom. SFPD members and the acting president of the police union, Tracy McCray, were seen happily hugging and shaking hands.
Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Young said the outcome was “hugely disappointing.” She said she believed “there was abundant evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of an assault by excessive force once Dacari Spiers was on the ground and was being held down by his partner.”
Stangel would have been the first San Francisco Police officer to be convicted for an on-duty beating. He faced four felony charges, brought by District Attorney Chesa Boudin in December, 2020: battery with serious bodily injury, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury, and assault under color of authority.
The 12-person jury delivered its verdict at 3:05 p.m. Monday, finding Stangel not guilty on the first three counts. Because the jury failed to find consensus on the fourth charge, the court declared a mistrial on that charge.
Earlier this morning, the jury returned to the courtroom to announce that they were unable to reach a verdict on two of the four counts. When asked by the judge, a jury spokesperson confirmed the 12-person panel was “hopelessly deadlocked” with a 9-3 vote on count four. The jury then returned to the deliberation room to further discuss count three, with one dissenting juror. A hopeful crowd gathered outside the courtroom after the jury took lunch, but eventually dispersed when no verdict came.
Eventually, the jurors declared Stangel not guilty on his first three charges of assault and battery. The jury was hung on the fourth charge, which directly relates to Stangel’s role as an on-duty police officer. The District Attorney’s Office may decide to retry the case on the fourth charge, if it so chooses.
“It’s going to take a few days to understand why 12 jurors didn’t share [our] perspective, and it may have something to do with the fact that the black community is not on these juries,” Young said. She was not sure whether Boudin would choose to retry Stangel for misusing his authority as a police officer.
District Attorney spokesperson Rachel Marshall said that even though juries “struggle” to hold police accountable, “DA Boudin is committed to continuing our work in holding those who commit harm accountable, even if they wear a badge.”
Young noted that the jury was conflicted on charging Stangel in a situation they felt his partner, Officer Cuauhtémoc Martinez, had started. “He was the one with the initial really poor tactics,” Young said, and jurors felt that Stangel was “just confronted with a bad situation.”
Stangel and Martínez were responding to a 911 call about a domestic violence incident when they encountered Dacari Spiers and his then-girlfriend near Fisherman’s Wharf. The couple matched the description provided by dispatch, but were not involved in a physical altercation when the officers arrived.
The officers’ body-worn camera footage, which captured the interaction, shows Martínez and Stangel quickly approaching the couple and trying to grab Spiers without explanation. Within seconds, Martínez was grappling with Spiers, and Stangel began beating Spiers with his metal baton, breaking two of his bones.
Prior to the verdict, Spiers told Mission Local that he was trying to keep a positive attitude, and was finding himself increasingly invested in watching how Stangel’s trial played out. Regardless of the outcome, though, he still felt that “at the end of the day, I’m still gonna be the one that loses.”
Throughout 11 days of trial, prosecutors argued that Stangel disregarded his police training to de-escalate and take time to assess the situation and instead escalated it. While Spiers may have resisted and questioned the officers’ advances, prosecutors told jurors that he acted within his rights.
Stangel’s attorney portrayed her client as a well-meaning officer who was trying to protect his partner from a “violent” and “assaultive” Spiers. The defense called two expert witnesses to support its case, including an SFPD training officer who said the beating was justified.
“This was not just a trial of Stangel. It was inevitably a trial of SFPD as well,” wrote John Crew, a police practices expert and retired attorney with the ACLU, in an email to Mission Local.
Multiple witnesses testified that the couple was arguing, but the two 911 callers were the only ones to claim the argument turned violent.
Stangel is among a small handful of police officers the District Attorney’s Office has charged with felonies for using excessive force against a civilian. A Campaign Zero report from 2016 found that, out of more than 4,000 police killings across the country over the prior three years, only 85 of them led to criminal charges against the officer. Only six of those officers were convicted.
Such charges have been seen by some as “politically motivated,” as Stangel’s attorney, Pifari, told the jury last week was the case in this trial. Pifari repeated this view again today, and told Mission Local that she believed District Attorney Chesa Boudin was “tipping the scales of justice to pursue his political agenda.”
As part of such politics, Stangel’s trial has sparked a public fallout between the SFPD and the DA.
In January, during a pre-trial hearing days before opening arguments, an investigator for the DA’s office testified that she was pressured to withhold evidence from the SFPD. Although the judge ruled that the “evidence” was duplicative and neither relevant nor exculpatory, Police Chief Bill Scott moved to end an agreement that ensures the DA’s office will independently investigate police use-of-force incidents.
That agreement, first signed in 2019, is set to expire May 20.
Last week, a federal judge sanctioned the SFPD by a judge for withholding evidence from the very same incident: Police interviews were not provided to Spiers’ attorneys in his civil case against the city. In February, the Board of Supervisors ratified a $700,000 settlement with Spiers.
Stangel’s trial was often focused on Spiers, the man he beat. Spiers was never charged with any crime after that night in October, 2019, but jurors heard accounts of Spiers’ temperament, previous encounters with law enforcement, and his physical stature; both Stangel and Martínez testified that Spiers seemed larger than he is. In her closing argument last week, Pifari told the jury to dismiss Spiers’ testimony as dishonest.
“In some ways the trial was about who is ‘allowed’ to act confused when confronted by police,” Crew wrote. “Who can ask questions (‘what did I do?’) and who can’t. [It was] about who will be viewed as so inherently dangerous that any attempt at de-escalation is instantly dismissed.”