FEATURED IN INVESTIGATION
Editor's note: This is the second installment of the Dante Candelaria Incident. To read the first part, click here.
When asked to review Dante Candelaria's situation by his attorney, I agreed. As I started my review, I began to get more and more upset with what I was reading. “I must be missing something here," I kept saying to myself. “There must be more to this story.”
But there wasn’t. What you read in Part One is exactly what was testified to at his two-day trial in Orange County Criminal Court last month. I know because I was there. The claim of excessive force was dropped as part of the state’s pre-trial strategy, thus keeping both sides' “force expert” off the stand, but I stayed on as a consulting expert.
When Mr. Banger said, under oath, “I was punched in the mouth,” the video showed he wasn’t. When Dante’s gang unit supervisor testified he went to the house about an hour later and interviewed Mr. Banger, he swore there was no visible injury. When Mr. Banger further testified that he went to the restroom of the fast food restaurant and wiped off his presumably bloody lip, the video showed he never went near the men’s room. The schoolyard video clearly showed the two females leaving (pursuant to Dante’s orders) well before any ground stabilization occurred. This was contrary to the sworn statements of witnessing a punch that they gave to the physical crimes sergeant.
Witness after witness testified that the Terry stops of both the female sitting outside the school and the detention of Mr. Banger on school property was both proper and lawful. After the state’s closing statement that painted Dante as a rogue cop and the defense’s summation that pointed out the obvious lies from what one police officer called the “parade of perjurers” who occupied the witness stand over those two days, the jury agreed that Dante was just doing his job, and that he did it lawfully.
But the one hour and 20 minutes of jury deliberations, which included eating dinner and picking their foreperson, was undoubtedly the longest 80 minutes of Dante’s life, not including the 15 months he was on inside desk duty awaiting his trial.
This is one of those few cases that just screamed injustice and I opted to take on this case pro bono after my initial review. How could this happen? It wasn’t a failing in internal affairs (IA) protocol. I’ve worked IA in my agency in New York and I know the standard procedures. From everything I know about this case, it never even got to OPD internal affairs.
From my experience, most if not all IA investigators are professionals and know their jobs well. In my opinion, any IA investigator worth his or her salt would have flushed this piece of tripe right down the drain when the evidence didn’t match up with Mr. Banger’s allegations and supported Dante’s version of the events. But Dante was never even formally interviewed after his initial conversation with his gang unit sergeant on the day of the complaint. What--never interviewed?
The physical crimes sergeant testified that she placed a call on or about February 14 to Dante and asked him to come to her office for an interview. According to the officers I spoke with, these interviews are ordinarily scheduled during the officer’s duty hours. But she set this one for Dante’s day off. Unfortunately for Dante, his wife, who was recovering from brain surgery at the time, suffered a relapse, and Dante requested and was granted emergency medical leave. He missed his meeting with the sergeant, and with more urgent matters on his mind, forgot to call and reschedule the appointment.
But apparently the sergeant felt she met her obligations and went ahead and filed her probable cause affidavit with the SAO a few days later while Dante was out on leave tending to his wife’s medical needs. We’ll probably never know what the physical crimes sergeant’s intent was in filing this affidavit when all the evidence showed the alleged assault never happened. As far as the SAO’s motivation in proceeding with this case, even to the point of adding the “deadly weapon” enhancement to the two existing felonies, we’ll probably never know what was in his mind either.
But what I do know is that this wasn't one of those customary civil cases where the time investment vs. reward issue is just monetary. Dante Candelaria was looking at spending the next three decades in a state prison for doing his job in a responsible, reasonable, professional and lawful manner.
Most folks will tell you there’s usually three sides to every story; one side, the other side and the truth. In this case, Dante’s story and the truth melded into one and the jury saw it. Proof of that is when the jury, each and every one, smiled as the Court Clerk read their unanimous "Not guilty" verdicts clearing him on all three counts. One of the alternate jurors even came over and hugged Dante and cried after the verdict was read. I cried too.