Officer Terry Stangel, far right, at the courthouse on the first day of his trial for the 2019 beating of Dacari Spiers. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

The first seven days of the landmark use-of-force trial of Officer Terrance Stangel have been subdued, with no grand reveals and instead just a careful elicitation of testimony from more than a dozen witnesses. 

Still, there is the drama of the courtroom, with the prosecution and defense each trying to make their points and establish credibility with the jury. And the trial, generally believed to be the first in the modern era in which an on-duty police officer faces criminal charges for excessive use of force, has already instigated the highly-publicized (and ongoing) fallout between the District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Police Chief William Scott. 

Oddly, however, there seems to be little public interest. Most days, the audience is generally sparse, including some spectators from the families of witnesses, other lawyers, and a couple of concerned, white-haired citizens. Only when the defense brought a use-of-force expert to the stand did the audience grow, as uniformed and plainclothes police officers filled the squeaky wooden seats. 

Those called to testify have all clearly been trained on how to respond to questioning on the stand, and each witness deftly avoids the questions they can’t answer (or don’t want to). Sometimes, attorneys are visibly frustrated after a line of questioning leads up to a climactic question, only to have the witness decline to answer. 

At other times, the attorneys can’t seem to fathom the witnesses’ responses. Defense attorney Nicole Pifari seemed confounded by the on-and-off-again relationship between the victim, Dacari Spiers, and his girlfriend, Breonna Richard. Rebecca Young, longtime public defender and one of three prosecuting attorneys from the District Attorney’s office, appeared bewildered that a witness, Officer Gonee Sepulveda, failed to interview people who witnessed the police use-of-force incident, saying it wasn’t her official duty to do so. 

For his part, Stangel, the defendant, sits next to his attorney, day by day, staring ahead, dressed in a suit and tie. He rarely varies his expression and, in seven days in the courtroom, this reporter only once saw him participate: when San Francisco Superior Court Judge Teresa M. Caffese asked Pifari on Thursday whether she wanted to cross-examine the prosecution’s final witness for the Nth time, Pifari looked to Stangel. The officer moved his shoulders with  a tiny, almost imperceptible shrug. 

No further questions, Pifari told the judge. 

Breonna Richard, right, at the courthouse on the second day of SFPD Officer Terrance Stangel’s trial for his 2019 beating of Dacari Spiers. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

Defensive tactics

Stangel’s lone defender, Pifari, a former police officer from Montana, does the heavy lifting. The graduate of University of California, Hastings, Law School is blunt and tough as she tries to discredit or undermine the prosecution’s witnesses. When Dacari Spiers, the victim of the 2019 beating that left him with two broken bones, took the witness stand, she used simple intimidation. 

You said, “You thought you got away, didn’t you?” Pifari asked Spiers, referring to the conversation she imagined Spiers had with his girlfriend that provoked a 911 call and sent police to the scene.

The fact that Spiers and his girlfriend were neither fighting nor touching one another when the officers arrived mattered little to Pifari. 

She continued to reconstruct the scene: You said, “I got you now, bitch,” she insisted. 

“You said, ‘You ain’t goin’ no motherfuckin’ where,’ didn’t you?”

While antagonistic with many of the witnesses, Pifari proved accommodating and gentle with the police officers who took the witness stand, joking with Stangel’s partner Officer Cuauhtémoc Martínez and running her hand across Stangel’s back as she maneuvered around him. 

Whenever she plays video footage of the 911 call or the encounter that ended with Spiers’ beating, Pifari invites one of the jurors, who has poor eyesight, to come forward to a special chair so that she can see clearly. 

Unlike the prosecution’s attorneys, Pifari has a penchant for drama: She moves around, gestures while she speaks, and changes her tone depending on who she’s quoting. Lines alleged to be said by Spiers land harsh and aggressive, while she injects a fearful intonation into out-loud interpretations of officers’ thoughts and feelings: Stangel, watching his partner “hanging on for dear life,” knew “this guy was too big, too strong,” and so he pulled out his baton. 

Body camera footage of Officer Terry Stangel beating Dacari Spiers in October, 2019.

Pifari creates imagery for the jury’s benefit. Martínez was “thrown around like a rag doll,” she said on more than one occasion, even though no evidence of this exists. 

The defense attorney interjects often to object to the prosecution’s line of questioning. But she also intervenes when a witness tries to answer her questions, as she did repeatedly Thursday with the prosecution’s use-of-force expert. His answers, she cut in several times to inform him, were too long-winded and indirect. 

The witness was Roger Clark, and she attempted to chip away at his credibility with backhanded commentary woven into her questions. On Thursday, for example, Pifari wondered about Clark’s law enforcement experience from a bygone era, testing his encyclopedic knowledge of police practices. 

So, she asked, the last time you physically arrested someone was about 35 years ago, in the mid-’80s? 

Dacari Spiers’ October 2019 beating by Officer Terrance Stangel left him in a wheelchair for for six weeks, according to his attorneys. He still ‘walks funny’ and has not been able to return to his previous work as a delivery driver. Photo courtesy of Spiers’ attorneys.


The three prosecutors have taken a calmer, more collected approach. Rebecca Young, a public defender for more than 18 years before joining the office of the District Attorney, was stern and maternal with Richard, the former girlfriend Spiers was with on the night of the beating. When Richard sobbed, Young consoled her. 

Assistant District Attorney Hans Moore, coiffed and wearing a patterned scarf, brings some vivacity and physicality to the courtroom. He whipped out Stangel’s metal police baton during his opening statement. He got on the floor to demonstrate Spiers’ fetal position as he was being beaten. He called Officer Joshua Cabillo down from the witness stand to simulate the officer’s position of advantage on the floor. 

When Spiers took the stand, Moore asked him down from the stand to demonstrate how he and Richard had hugged and “waddled” together that night. Spiers clasped his hands around Moore’s waist to demonstrate the embrace Spiers and his girlfriend were in when the 911 caller saw them. 

“You can hold on,” Moore said to Spiers over his shoulder. “We’re not done yet.” 

Moore can unintentionally get a laugh, too. At one point he asked Cabillo, another police officer who responded to the scene in 2019, about POST, the Peace Officer Standards and Training that California police officers learn: 

Moore: You’re not familiar with POST? 

Cabillo: Oh, yes. Sorry, I thought you said “toast.”

Assistant District Attorney Lateef Gray, though he does a large part of the questioning, is soft-spoken, sometimes to the point of being inaudible. On the first day of trial, the University of Michigan Law School graduate asked “leading” questions of the witness, to Pifari’s continuous objections. 

With the slightest hint of exasperation, Gray would restate his question, then do the same thing again. 

The court room where the trial of Officer Terrance Stangel is being heard. Photo by Annika Hom. Taken Feb. 14, 2022.

Judge and jury

Judge Caffese is generally a warm presence overseeing the courtroom, but occasionally appears fed up with the attorneys’ antics. On Thursday, arms outstretched, she asked-ordered, “Why don’t we just all calm down?” 

Earlier in the trial, as the attorneys from both sides bickered over a  point, Caffese asked: “Do you guys want to talk for a while and I’ll come back when you’re done?”

And another day, to more laughter from the jury, Caffese asked: “Does anyone want my ruling?” 

It’s unclear how the jurors are taking in all of this: The styles of the attorneys, the testimony they hear. They sit attentively, heads turning to catch every word. Some take avid notes, others ask questions. As early as this week, the case will be handed over to them.

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim nearly 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. Thanks for covering this trial so well. I really wanted to be there in the courtroom especially as your piece says that not many people from the public have been there. We have many groups following the progress even if there are not in the courtroom. I was shocked that officer Joshua Cabillo was on the stand since he’s the cop who executed my 15 year old nephew in So San Francisco in 2012. I had heard from the cop grapevine that he was no longer with SFPD. He’s another bad one whose aggressive and violent behavior has cost the city of SF several settlements.

    1. 1 of 6,204
      Near Satire I’m doing OK with you two?

      h brown
      7:22 PM (4 minutes ago)
      to me, Joe, Lydia


      Thank you for the platform and I won’t get mad if you dump some or all of my comments.

      I just like writing them.


      I go for the first hour every morning for reasons of mental health.

      Eleni’s right, place is a ghost town.

      This morning I had the entire left side of the courtroom to myself at 9am.

      I screw with their heads cause there are so few people you can walk right up and …

      One day I asked Stangel if he’d been tested for steroids.

      This morning they were huddled at the door trying to avoid me and I came over and said nothing and just got as close as I could to them and I leaned on the little podium at the door two feet from them and the lead defense attorney started pounding on the door and her co-counsel grabbed her orange drink from the podium next to me.

      Hey, that was fascinating.

      I knew that I was only watching Stangel and he held his cool totally which I think he also knew what he was doing when he beat Spiers too.

      This guy calculates and can ID a real threat in a second and he knew this old bulldog is all bark and not even so much of that these days.

      His lawyers were frenetic.

      I caught a cop who’d just testified also this morning as I was leaving on bench outside and talked about military life and if his guy could get one vote against guilty and he said that you couldn’t get any twelve people to agree on anything and I pointed out to him that Gonzalez got twelve to agree that Zarate was innocent with the President of the United States breathing hate down his back and Boudin’s people only have Tucker Carlson.

      I thanked him for his service and that’s my offering on the matter and I’ve gotta load another pipe while I watch Biden and Chamberlain deal with Putin.Anyway, the ‘mental health’ reason I always leave is to load a bowl and, ‘get my head right’ and back into retiring mode.

      Go Giants!


  2. Did the police have any reason whatsoever to beat the shit out of this guy?
    They seemed to think he was threatening. What made them think that?

    1. Sam,

      They beat him because they are poorly led.

      The solution to that will take years to take effect fully.

      It begins with electing our Police Chief.

      That will take a Charter Amendment which has to originate with the BOS or Mayor and it ain’t coming from the Mayor.

      The idea is Michael Hennessey’s and I’ve put it forward every chance I get for at least a decade.

      I think Ronen or Peskin should propose a look at the matter but nobody listens to me but the paper mache clown (Jr. Brown) hanging in a swing from my old lamp and the little stuffed dog right next to my keyboard on the left.

      And, of course, the NSA.

      Where’s my foil hat?

      Go Giants!


  3. All that matters …

    Did Officer Terry Stangel give an illegal beating to Dacari Spiers?

    That’s it.

    Nothing else in the Universe constructed for the jury.

    Nothing Spiers or Stangel did in the rest of their lives up to that moment matters.

    In that moment both prosecution and defense agree that there was nothing violent going on between Spiers and his girlfriend.

    Yet, the arriving cops (Stangel and Martinez) violated all of their training and Martinez rushed forward and grabbed Spiers upper body while Stangel whipped Spiers legs out from beneath him with his baton and beat him viciously til he got too tired to go on.

    Everyone agrees to that.

    What nobody agrees about is why they did that.

    Are they dumber than rocks?

    I don’t think so.

    Did they fail to make a plan as the expert said they should have?

    Oh, I do believe they had a plan.

    Going something like this …

    Keep in mind, I’m just guessing same as all of the lawyers in the courtroom.

    Call comes in as ‘domestic violence, guy strangling woman’ …

    One officer: “I’m so sick and tired of this shit.”

    Second: “So, how want to handle it?”

    First officer: “You hold the mother fucker down and yell for him to stop resisting and I’ll beat the shit out of him!”

    Second: “Can we get by with that?”

    First: “We have been for a hundred and fifty years.”

    If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck?

    It’s probably a duck.

    Go Ducks!