FRESNO — Disgraced former Bakersfield Police Department detective Damacio Diaz was sentenced Monday in U.S. District Court to five years in federal prison — a far more lenient sentence than prosecutors had urged — for offenses including drug trafficking, taking bribes and lying on his tax return.
In a highly charged hearing packed with family members and supporters of the former cop, U.S. District Judge Lawrence O’Neill indicated during the nearly two-hour hearing that the case was among the most difficult and emotional he’s encountered in all his years on the bench.
“There is no shame in admitting that this case has kept me awake at night, and few do,” O’Neill said to the packed courtroom.
Diaz pleaded guilty last spring as part of a plea agreement that became public in May. He also was indicted on charges of disclosing wiretap information to a criminal partner, interfering with a criminal investigation, and other felonies, but those charges were dismissed in the plea agreement.
The hearing included impassioned appeals by Diaz’s brother, wife and daughter, with the two latter witnesses in tears through much of their statements.
“I feel like if he’s gone, I won’t have anyone,” said Diaz’s daughter Caroline, a student at Bakersfield College who had originally planned to attend UCLA. She changed her plans following her father’s indictment.
“My dad gives me a sense of security,” she told the court. “I feel safe knowing he is in my corner.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office had recommended a sentence of between roughly 17 and 22 years, but the judge had discretion.
Early on, O’Neill seemed to be signaling he was taking a hard-line stance. When one of Diaz’s attorneys used the word “indiscretion” to describe Diaz’s misdeeds, O’Neill interrupted.
“Oh, it’s more than an indiscretion,” he said.
And when it was suggested Diaz could help rebuild the community’s trust in the police department if only he were allowed the freedom to do so, the judge pounced again, saying he didn’t believe that trust damaged so severely by a person given such extraordinary powers could be fully restored.
“This hearing is not about telling someone they are no good,” O’Neill said. “I understand he did a lot of good before this criminal activity. But I also understand clearly that while he did not sell his soul, he certainly rented it out.”
But even prosecutor Brian Delaney of the U.S. Attorney’s Office seemed satisfied with Diaz’s ultimate sentence, a dozen years fewer than the minimum he had recommended.
“A sentence of five years is less than what we expected, but it’s still a strong sentence,” he said outside the courtroom after the hearing. “Five years in jail for a law enforcement officer ... that’s still a serious sentence. That’s a long time in jail for someone who once wore a badge.”
The assistant U.S. attorney used the word “paradox” to describe Diaz, one of seven siblings raised in the northern Kern County farming community of McFarland in a religious family, and one that seemed the epitome of the American dream.
Diaz was active as a youth coach, and as a cop he rose quickly through the ranks before, as he said, he was seduced by the lure of easy money, by stealing and selling methamphetamine for personal profit, the very drugs he was being paid to get off the streets.
Diaz did a lot of “good things,” Delaney said. He also committed “serious, reprehensible crimes. It’s hard to understand how he could do both.”
Diaz, who has been allowed to remain free throughout the process, cooperated fully with investigators, according to the prosecution. Delaney acknowledged that Diaz provided information that was helpful in bringing charges against his former police partner, Patrick Mara, whose own sentencing is scheduled Oct. 17.
Diaz’s attorney, David Torres, was clearly relieved by the judge’s decision. He called it a “fair” sentence, under the circumstances, and rejected the suggestion that it was an example of “dual justice”: one set of standards for those viewed with favor by the system, and another set for those without resources or with no history of working in the criminal justice system.
“Absolutely not,” Torres said.
After nearly three decades as a defense attorney, Torres said, he has seen people charged with trafficking in narcotics sentenced to much less prison time, and he’s seen the reverse. It depends on the circumstances.
“Under the circumstances, there’s absolutely no issue of dual justice here,” he said.
Diaz was not remanded into custody. He must report to federal authorities before 2 p.m. Dec. 5 to begin serving his sentence. According to Torres, the federal system will keep Diaz behind bars for more than four years before he becomes eligible for release. He will then be subject to three years of supervised release.
In an extraordinary statement, Judge O’Neill spoke directly to Diaz’s daughter, Caroline. He advised her to first trust in God, as the Almighty, he said, is not subject to the weaknesses and failings of humankind. Second, he expressed sympathy regarding the educational quandary in which she finds herself.
“If it were ethical, I would pay to have you go to UCLA,” he said, noting that it clearly was not. That the judge would even mention such a possibility underscored the unusual nature of the hearing.
O’Neill instructed Delaney to directly telephone the warden of the prison assigned to receive Diaz in order to help ensure the safety of the former cop who will soon find himself behind bars.
Diaz, his large extended family, his friends and supporters — including Jim White, the legendary McFarland High School cross country coach who was featured along with the Diaz brothers in the Disney movie, “McFarland, USA,” — gathered in a prayer circle outside the courtroom following the hearing.
Five years is much better than 17, from their point of view, and while prison time will be an ordeal for the one-time cop, everyone knew they had won something at least resembling a victory.
Unlike most defendants sentenced to prison for drug trafficking and other serious crimes, Diaz, dressed in a dark suit, walked out of the courthouse Monday afternoon unshackled, temporarily a free man. He will have about two months to think about what comes next.