Pablo Lopez and John Ellis
A jury took less than three hours Wednesday to find Fresno police officer Paul Cervantes not guilty of stealing a suspected drug dealer’s car.
It was a quick end to a high-profile case that turned traditional allies into adversaries, with prosecutors and the California Highway Patrol on one side of the courtroom and the Fresno Police Department on the other.
The jury of nine women and three men unanimously rejected arguments presented by the CHP’s auto-theft task force and the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office.
The acquittal marked the collapse of a prosecution that had been difficult from the start. Two police officers from the department’s elite drug squad were charged initially with auto theft — but a judge dismissed charges against one early on, citing a lack of evidence.
“This was a tough investigation with political ramifications because it involved a police officer,” said CHP Sgt. Lenny Sherman, who heads the auto-theft task force.
As the verdict was read Wednesday in Fresno County Superior Court, a look of relief swept across Cervantes’ face, as well as the faces of dozens of his supporters who packed Judge James Oppliger’s courtroom, including Police Chief Jerry Dyer.
“Thank you,” Cervantes mouthed to the panel. He then hugged his attorney, Terry Lynn Bowman.
The judge took the unusual step of commenting on the jury’s verdict, telling jurors they made the correct call “in my opinion and in your opinion.”
Oppliger said the “evidence favored Mr. Cervantes’ version of events.”
But the judge also chastised Cervantes for giving the impression that he might have done something wrong.
“I hope that you learned a lesson,” Oppliger said.
Dyer said many in the community felt Cervantes “was guilty — until proven innocent today.” He said he was glad to hear the judge say that he, too, believed Cervantes was not guilty of the charges.
“I’m extremely happy for officer Cervantes and his family,” Dyer said.
But Dyer had terse words for deputy district attorney Patrick Caples, saying the prosecutor owed Cervantes an apology for calling the officer a liar during closing arguments.
Caples, however, doesn’t need to apologize, said his boss, Jon Skiles, an assistant district attorney.
“Patrick Caples did his job and did it well,” Skiles said.
Investigators had built their case carefully, Sherman said. The CHP auto-theft task force includes officers from other agencies, including the Fresno Police Department. Among the investigators who probed Cervantes was Brad Alcorn, a Fresno police detective with a reputation for winning high-profile murder cases.
“I just hope no one gets in trouble for doing their job,” Sherman said.
Cervantes has been on paid administrative leave since his arrest in late January. With the acquittal, he will return to full duty, Dyer said, but it is not immediately known what he will do. The trial and accompanying publicity have made it impossible for Cervantes to continue to work as an undercover officer, Dyer said.
Cervantes’ partner, who also had been charged, will return to duty as well, Dyer said. Hector Becerra also was an undercover officer — and he, too, no longer can perform that job because of the publicity, Dyer said.
Dyer disbanded the narcotics unit a month after the officers’ arrest. On Wednesday, he said an independent audit of the unit will be completed this month.
Prosecutors accused Cervantes of allowing a police informant to take a suspected drug dealer’s car during a drug bust.
During the weeklong trial, the suspected dealer, Humberto Ortega Quintero, testified that his Ford Explorer was stolen after he was arrested by Cervantes, Becerra and other members of the major narcotics unit Jan. 7, 2008.
Police informant Jesus Jose Mendoza Valles told jurors that Cervantes told him to take Quintero’s car and register it in his name.
Cervantes, however, testified that he never told Valles to take Quintero’s car. He also said he told his supervisors of the car deal, and he wasn’t at the crime scene when Valles drove off with the car. Instead, a sergeant at the scene reviewed the car’s ownership papers and allowed Valles to drive off, Cervantes testified.
The jury acquitted the decorated narcotics officer of two felony counts: auto theft and possession of a stolen car.
After the verdict was announced, Caples followed through on a promise to Valles, who had pleaded no contest to possession of a stolen car and agreed to testify against Cervantes.
First, Oppliger accepted Valles’ motion to withdraw his plea. Then Caples dropped the case, said attorney Ralph Torres, who represents Valles. Valles was expected to be released from the downtown jail Wednesday evening, Torres said.
Caples left the courthouse without commenting.
Torres said Caples was upset with the verdict. “It was a difficult case because the community looks at police differently,” Torres said. “They want to believe them.”
Juror Rodney Harding, 55, of Selma said the panel believed Cervantes over his accusers. He also said Cervantes didn’t try to hide the car deal from his supervisors.
“He had an understanding that Valles had purchased the car [from Quintero],” Harding said.
Harding declined to discuss the panel’s deliberations, but he said an accusation against a police officer should be resolved by a jury to make sure “everything is on the up and up.”
Elated by the verdict, Cervantes said he felt vindicated. “I feel that I did nothing wrong,” he said.
Cervantes said he wants to continue as an investigator, but he conceded it was hard to hold his emotions in check “as my reputation was trashed.”
Bowman, Cervantes’ attorney, said: “He deserved this verdict without question. It’s a case that never should have been filed.”
But Skiles said the jury’s verdict would not dissuade the District Attorney from filing such cases.
“If we believe a crime has been committed, and we can prove it, we will file it,” Skiles said