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Officer’s lawyer calls baton-beating prosecution politically motivated

Capping off an 11-day criminal trial, prosecution and defense lawyers delivered closing arguments and urged jurors to either acquit or convict a San Francisco police officer for assaulting an unarmed suspect with a baton.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — On the final day of a criminal trial against a San Francisco police officer, jurors heard mixed messages on whether the case is a politically motivated campaign against police or a necessary step to hold officers responsible for wrongdoing.

“Police need to be held accountable when they use excessive force, when they break the law,” Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Young told a 12-member jury in closing arguments Monday.

Officer Terrance Stangel faces four felony assault charges for beating a Black man and domestic violence suspect with a baton. The defense argues Stangel followed his training when he swung his metal nightstick at the suspect to protect himself and his partner.

“He’s seeing his fellow officer get shoved and grappled with,” Stangel’s lawyer Nicole Pifari told jurors. “That’s assaultive conduct.”

Responding to reports of domestic violence, officer Stangel and his partner Cuauhtémoc Martinez tried to stop and question Dacari Spiers near Pier 39 in San Francisco on Oct. 6, 2019. The officers say Spiers refused to comply with their commands and shoved them away when they tried to detain him. Spiers denied pushing the officers in previous testimony.

Stangel's case is the first prosecution of a police officer brought to trial under the leadership of progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a former public defender who vowed to hold police accountable for misconduct.

On Monday, Stangel’s lawyer accused Boudin’s office of filing the charges to satisfy a political agenda rather than to pursue justice.

“This DA’s office already knew which way they were going to take it,” Pifari said. “They already picked sides.”

Several witnesses were called to testify about the character and past transgressions of the alleged victim. Several Bay Area police officers told jurors about Spiers’ three assault convictions and two prior arrests for domestic violence, which did not result in convictions.

Stangel’s lawyer argued that her client had to use the baton to subdue a suspect with a track record of physically harming others. Spiers was convicted of assaulting three men in 2015, 2017 and 2018, including two who were knocked unconscious.

“Dacari Spiers is a violent person,” Pifari said.

But the prosecution argued that Spiers’ criminal history is irrelevant to whether he was the victim of excessive police force. Young noted that each officer who testified said Spiers cooperated with their investigations, answered questions and never fought or challenged the police.

According to Young, Stangel’s partner Martinez created a dangerous situation when he rushed out of a police car toward Spiers shouting “come here” and grabbing the suspect without announcing himself as an officer or explaining why he was there.

In a body camera video, Spiers can be heard yelling “What did I do” as the officer tries to grab him. Spiers also says “I ain’t facing no wall” during the interaction, which, according to the defense, shows he was refusing to comply with police commands.

Police had received a 911 call that night stating that a man matching Spiers’ description was seen assaulting his girlfriend. Spiers and his former girlfriend Breonna Richard told jurors in prior testimony that no domestic violence occurred.

When police arrived at the scene and saw Spiers standing close to Richard, defense witnesses said the officers had to act quickly to separate them because Spiers may have posed a threat to his then-girlfriend.

Martinez said when he tried to pull Spiers away from Richard, the suspect responded by shoving and grappling with him. Spiers told jurors he was simply jerking away from the officer to avoid getting grabbed on the street with no explanation.

“All of us have the right to walk down the street without fear of an unreasonable seizure,” Young told the jury.

Stangel’s lawyer said her client believed his partner was in imminent danger when he pulled out his baton and struck Spiers seven to eight times, breaking his wrist and leg. Stangel said he never intended to break the suspect's bones but that he felt he had to protect himself and his partner.

“You cannot ask human beings to do a job where they are required to confront violent people, get attacked and then not allow them to defend themselves and each other,” Pifari said.

Pifari also argued that her client had to keep striking Spiers with his baton after the suspect fell to the ground because Spiers continued kicking at Stangel. She encouraged jurors to look at shadows on the pavement in a body camera video that appear to show Spiers' legs kicking in the air. Spiers previously said he was reflexively moving his legs to avoid getting hit.

"Repeated kicks to the chest are not a reflex," Pifari said.

In her rebuttal argument, Young urged jurors to evaluate the facts for themselves and not to accept the defense's version of events.

"Just because defense counsel says over and over again that [Stangel] saw his partner getting battered, that doesn’t mean that’s what was happening," Young said.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Teresa Caffese instructed jurors that they must not convict officer Stangel if he “he acted in lawful self-defense or defense of another” and “reasonably believed that he or someone else was in imminent danger of bodily injury.”

Stangel faces four felony charges: 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.

If found guilty, he could get sentenced to a maximum seven years in prison.

The 12-member jury will start deliberating Tuesday morning.

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