SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — On the sixth day of a rare criminal trial against a police officer for on-duty assault, a witness testified Wednesday that a man was dragging his girlfriend by the neck before he was beaten by a police officer's baton.
“The young lady was trying to get away from the guy, and he wouldn’t leave her alone,” Mercedes Emerson, who called 911 to report domestic violence that night, told the jury.
Emerson was the first defense witness to testify in the criminal trial against San Francisco police officer Terrance Stangel, accused of unjustifiably beating Dacari Spiers, a Black man and domestic violence suspect, with a baton on Oct. 6, 2019. Spiers suffered a broken wrist, broken leg and other injuries.
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 has vowed to hold police accountable for misconduct.
Spiers and his ex-girlfriend Breonna Richard testified last week that Spiers was consoling Richard after she got upset over a stolen wallet and that Spiers never harmed her, but Emerson contradicted that account in her testimony Wednesday.
Emerson, a Sacramento resident who was in town to celebrate a friend’s daughter’s birthday that night, described seeing Spiers put his then-girlfriend in a headlock, hoist her up by the waist with her legs kicking in the air and grab her at least twice as she tried to run away from him.
“He was dragging her and yelling at her so I was like, ‘I’m gonna call the police because I don’t know what’s going to happen to her,’” Emerson said.
On cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Hans Moore pointed out that other people saw the couple's interaction that night and didn’t call police. He asked about cars that were blocking Emerson's view of the couple and questioned if lighting and other factors could have obstructed her vision that night.
In follow-up questions, Stangel’s attorney Nicole Pifari tried to discredit those arguments.
“Was there enough light for you to see him put her in a headlock,” Pifari asked. “Was there enough light to see things that prompted you to call 911?”
“Yes,” Emerson replied to both questions.
Also Wednesday, two Richmond, California, police officers testified about responding to prior domestic violence calls involving Spiers and a woman named Taneia, the mother of his child.
In 2012, officer Joshua Clark said he saw an abrasion on the woman’s neck and small wounds on her finger and bicep. In 2015, officer Justin Church observed a small cut on Taneia’s inner lip. Church said Taneia told him Spiers had “punched her several times on the face and side of the head” after she refused to let go of her son.
On cross-examination, Church acknowledged he saw no evidence of injuries to Taneia’s face. Both officers said Spiers mostly cooperated with their investigations and answered their questions. Spiers was not convicted of a crime in either case.
Another witness, Andriy Kovalets, told jurors he was walking in San Francisco in January 2015 when Spiers suddenly “jumped out” and pushed him.
“There was a large Black guy with dreads who said, ‘Say you’re sorry, bitch,’” Kovalets recalled. “I said, ‘Why should I say sorry? You pushed me.’”
When Kovalets took out his phone to call police, he said a group of guys jumped out and started surrounding him. He said Spiers punched him so hard, it knocked him unconscious and cracked the bones in his face. His cellphone was taken. He never got the phone back, and he was stuck with a $13,000 medical bill, he said.
“I can’t raise the left side of my mouth still,” Kovalets told the jury.
Eric Molina, a former Oakland police officer, also testified that he arrested Spiers in April 2018 after seeing him stomp an unconscious man on a sidewalk in downtown Oakland. The man was knocked unconscious, had a bloody face and his teeth were knocked out, according to Molina.
Spiers, who pleaded guilty to felony battery in that case, testified last week that he attacked the man because he grabbed his girlfriend’s butt. Spiers said he was “trying to protect my girlfriend a little too much.”
On cross-examination, Molina acknowledged that Spiers did not try to fight or resist police when they arrested him that night.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Teresa Caffese previously ruled Spiers’ criminal record and arrest history were relevant and admissible at trial, but prosecutors are expected to argue that background has no bearing on Stangel’s decision to beat Spiers with a baton in October 2019.
Stangel’s lawyer and a fellow officer say the use of the baton was appropriate because Spiers was resisting arrest and refusing to comply with officers' commands when they tried to detain him. Spiers claims he never pushed the officers and was simply standing next to his girlfriend when police abruptly grabbed him and tried to detain him for no reason.
The trial, which has widened an already deep chasm of distrust between the police department and district attorney’s office, is expected to continue through next week. The prosecution’s last witness, a use-of-force expert, is slated to testify Thursday.