Video footage of two Alameda sheriff’s deputies brutally beating a man with batons in a Mission District alley in November 2015 was so horrifying that it made a cameo in a 2018 episode of the sci-fi/horror show Black Mirror — as a poster child of police violence that one character called “gross.”
The deputies, Paul Wieber and Luis Santamaria, chased a man named Stanislav Petrov into an alley and beat him relentlessly with batons, even after he was incapacitated and writhing on the ground.
So it may come as a shock that, back in March, District Attorney Chesa Boudin, the poster child of progressive prosecution, filed to dismiss the charges against the two now-fired deputies for beating Petrov.
The dismissal, first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle last Thursday, raises questions about whether the deputies will escape criminal liability and whether Boudin is keeping good on his campaign promises to hold police accountable.
In an interview with Mission Local, Boudin pledged he would refile the charges as soon as it made strategic sense, in a case he characterized as “a high-profile, egregious example of criminal use of force by law enforcement.”
“I’m committed to prosecuting this case as I am committed to the broader principle of equal enforcement of the law and police accountability — platforms that I ran my campaign on,” he said. “And I remain as committed as ever to fulfilling those campaign promises.”
The dismissal of the charges — battery, assault with a deadly weapon, and assault by an officer under the color of the law — came after various procedural twists and turns, and then the coronavirus pandemic, which limited the capacity of San Francisco’s criminal courts.
Since Boudin’s predecessor George Gascón filed charges in 2016, the case has been punted between assistant district attorneys without significant progress in court.
But at the beginning of this year, the deputies invoked their right to a speedy trial, and a trial was set for early March. A week before trial, however, one of the prosecution’s expert witnesses — a police practices expert, Charles Key — needed spinal surgery, so Boudin’s office requested the trial be pushed back so Key could recover and testify. The request was denied. And despite the prospect of the witness testifying by video conference, Boudin’s office moved to dismiss the case.
Boudin defended the moves. He told Mission Local that he had two options: Proceed to trial without a critical witness or file for a “first dismissal,” which would grant the prosecution the time it needed to move forward under better circumstances. “I was not willing to jeopardize our chances of winning such a serious and important case,” Boudin said.
So he chose the second option.
And, indeed, court filings show the prosecution moved to dismiss primarily to allow its police practices expert to become available.
“As stated in the People’s motion to continue the trial … and in this motion for dismissal, Mr. Key is a material witness,” a March 12 filing states. “For this reason, the People are applying to the court to dismiss the case due to the unavailability of Mr. Key.”
The motion makes it clear that moving to dismiss a first time is a legally permissible means to “obtain a witness.”
Asked why he did not agree to video testimony by the witness, Boudin said allowing that to happen would “undermine the strength of our case.”
“At the end of the day, having a live witness that the jury can see and hear with credibility they can evaluate is important,” Boudin said. “And if you put someone on those video screens, they’re far less impactful than if they’re there in person, especially if every single other witness in the case is in the courtroom.”
So why hasn’t Boudin refiled the charges and when does he plan to do so?
Boudin said that the pandemic has limited the courts’ ability to hold trials for defendants who are out of custody, like deputies Wieber and Santamaria. “The only cases that are going to trial are for in-custody defendants,” he said.
San Francisco Superior Court spokesman Ken Garcia confirmed “this is the case,” explaining: “Due to limited resources, in-custody defendants have been prioritized over out-of-custody defendants.”
And as San Francisco stares down a potential resurgence of coronavirus cases this winter, Boudin said it’s possible the courts could shut down entirely. “The only reason why we would rush to refile this case is if we were up against the statute limitations,” he said, and the DA’s office has “well over a year and a half before the statute of limitations expires.”
Moreover, he fears that if he refiles too soon, the case may run into another series of mishaps. If that were to happen, “we might have to dismiss the case a second time,” Boudin said, meaning “we can’t refile the case.”