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Theresa Dang Not Guily: Article and Audio Interviews

by John Earl Sunday, Dec. 04, 2005 at 9:33 AM

The case of the missing police flashlight remains unresolved, but local activist Theresa Dang can go back to her San Francisco law school now and finish studying for her first final exam after a jury of her “peers” voted her not guilty on two separate counts of petty theft of a Garden Grove police officer's flashlight during a May 25th demonstration at the Garden Grove Women's Club.

The case of the missing police flashlight remains unresolved, but local activist Theresa

Dang can go back to her San Francisco law school now and finish studying for her first final exam after a jury of her “peers” voted her not guilty on two separate counts of petty theft of a Garden Grove police officer's flashlight during a May 25th demonstration at the Garden Grove Women's Club.

“I feel really, really good,” Dang said, on the verge of tears. “This was a six-month ordeal.”

The target of the demonstration, which drew 300 immigrant rights advocates including Dang, as well as scores of police in full riot gear, was Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist, who was speaking to a meeting of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform—a strong supporter of Gilchrist's 48th district congressional campaign. CCIR refers to undocumented immigrants as “vicious, violent, barbaric, savage illegal alien killers” in its literature.

Dang says she innocently picked up a flashlight at the demonstration because she thought it belonged to a friend who was in the midst of being tackled by police. But she was relentlessly pursued by the Garden Grove police department and the Orange County District Attorney's office over the alleged theft. Her family's house was searched—she says ransacked—by police, who she claims also tried to convict her in the press prior to her trial. A courtroom conviction would have brought her up to a year in jail and a ,000 fine on the first count alone. Yet a Gilchrist supporter who rammed his van into Dang and several other demonstrators at the event, bruising her, flipping one person onto the car's hood and sending another to the hospital (according to witnesses) remains free and uncharged.

Dang and her attorney, Kwaku Duren, say that politics was the primary motivator for police and the DA's office, pointing out that charges were issued against her only after she and others had picketed the DA's office to demand prosecution of the van driver and protested before the Garden Grove city council that police had abused demonstrators.

But Assistant District Attorney Erik Petersen denied that politics had anything to do with the Dang's prosecution and said that he treated Dang's case like any other alleged petty theft. “I didn't prosecute this case because of Ms. Dang's political views,” he told the OCO, “I prosecuted this case because I felt that I witnessed a theft in our video.”

Petersen claims that he was never contacted by his superiors in the DA's office, including Tony Rackauckas, who has been the subject of repeated allegations of abuse of power in recent years. Petersen says he had leeway to offer to plea bargain the case, but Dang and her attorney declined. “They thought that we should dismiss the case or go to trial. So there was no real negotiating, but I could have negotiated the case if the defense counsel was willing to do so,” he said.

In closing arguments Petersen said that Dang had picked up the flashlight in a moment of passion as a trophy and kept its whereabouts hidden from investigators with the intent of depriving the alleged owner, a Garden Grove police officer, of his personal property. The first petty theft count against Dang required proof of a specific intent to steal and directly posses the flashlight, but the second count only required proof that she failed to make a good faith effort to return property that was lost or stolen even though it was not in her possession. The defense argued that specific intent applied to both counts but was overruled by the judge.

Petersen played a video for jurors that was taken at the demonstration that he said shows Dang picking up the flashlight and placing it in her bag. He also claimed that the officer's name label could be seen on the flashlight. The only “reasonable” conclusion, he said, is that Dang was stealing with specific intent.

But Duren argued that if Dang had placed the flashlight in her bag the video would have created a bulge visible in the video, but that instead the video backs Dang's story that the object was passed along. He added that even if a label could be seen in the video, a point he did not concede, not only was there too little time for Dang to read it, but she would have been “stupid” or “mental” to go back to where police were standing if she had thought she stole something belonging to one of them.

Dang testified that she was unaware that a police flashlight was missing until June 16 and that she was under no obligation to disclose anything to investigators at that time because she was then the subject of investigation herself. Outside of the courtroom, Dang said that she still thinks the flashlight belongs to her friend—who she testified she had seen carrying a flashlight at the demonstration before he was wrestled to the ground and arrested by police.

Jury foreman Bill Carrigan told the OCO that the jury had more trouble deciding a verdict on the first count than the second count. The issue, he said, was Dang's intent. “We all agreed that she picked up the flashlight...[but]...We couldn't find that she wanted to permanently keep it from the original owner.”

Even assuming that the flashlight did not belong to Dang's friend, Carrigan said, there was a lack of evidence that she had stolen. “If it was that specific officer's light, which was never entirely proven also, with the assumption that it was we still couldn't find the intent to permanently deprive. So we picked worst case and worked with that—we can't find it on worst case, then all of the other cases are going to follow suit.”

During breaks in the trial, Dang spoke of the “culture of mistrust” fostered by police who are involved in cases of brutality and shootings and fail to protect the interests of the community. She also stated that the 12 jurors were “not a jury of my peers” because their mainstream backgrounds preclude understanding the “culture of protest” that she belongs to. Nevertheless, after the not guilty verdicts Dang was moved to praise the jury for “doing their job” in examining the complex legal issues in the case.

In response, DA Petersen said that Dang should be “proud” of how the system works. “The charges were filed, she was afforded a trial, she had an attorney and ultimately the case was decided by 12 people who felt that she was not guilty. So, it appears to her that everything worked in her favor and everything worked fairly.”

But for Dang complete justice will not be served until her friends who were arrested on May 25 are freed. “They [police] don't have anything...They just grabbed people because the police have a certain attitude about protesters...and because they thought the situation was out of hand”

Police also abused their discretion by not pursuing charges against Nitkin, Dang said. “The district attorney's office is very aware of the fact that as a community we would like the District Attorney to file charges against Netkin, but he has decided not to.”

Petersen said he was not involved in that case and it was not his decision whether to prosecute Nitkin or not.

Dang was tried at the West Justice Center in Westminster.

The case cost an estimated ,000 per day and lasted two full days after jury selection. The cost of the flashlight is said to be about 0.00.

For audio interviews with Theresa Dang (defendant), jury foreman and prosecutor, go to

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