A 22-year-old man was convicted Wednesday of sexually assaulting a Chapman University student in Orange last year.
Following about two days of deliberations, jurors on Tuesday reached verdicts in the case of Dalante Jerome Bell, who was charged with assault with the intent to commit a sex offense and sexual penetration by a foreign object, both felonies. The verdicts were read Wednesday, convicting Bell of both counts for the Sept. 24, 2021, attack on the 18-year-old woman.
A sentencing date was not immediately set, with jurors sent back to deliberate on a sentence-enhancing allegation filed by prosecutors.
Deputy District Attorney Austin Neiman argued jurors should also find true a sentencing enhancement allegation that the victim was particularly vulnerable, while defense attorney Dermot Givens said she was not vulnerable and that it would be more “retribution” than “justice” in the case.
The student was having a FaceTime conversation with her boyfriend, a UC Berkeley student, in her dorm the evening of the attack when she walked outside on campus for privacy, Neiman told jurors in opening statements of Bell’s trial. She ended up in a courtyard outside Henley Hall, Neiman said.
The woman spotted someone walking by who “creeped her out a little,” the prosecutor said.
Moments later the man, dressed in a black hoodie and pants and wearing a mask that “looked like a skeleton,” returned and stood at the top of the stairs in the courtyard “staring at her,” Neiman said.
“The only way out is up those stairs,” Neiman said.
Eventually, the man “punches her in the face, pushes her down,” slamming her into a trash can, Neiman said. The attacker then sexually assaulted her by fondling her through her clothes, Neiman said.
He held her down for about 20 seconds as she shouted for help, and the suspect ran away when men ran to help the woman, Neiman said.
A surveillance camera caught the “entire assault,” Neiman said. The suspect eluded police when he slipped into residential neighborhoods, although police were able to track some of his movements through various business surveillance cameras.
On Sept. 27, police released a surveillance screen shot of the suspect. Bell’s father and stepmother recognized Bell, so they called authorities and arranged for him to come into the city’s police station, Neiman said.
Police collected a genetic swab sample from the defendant and sent it to the Orange County Crime Lab, where investigators matched the genetic material to the skull cap and to the left breast and crotch areas of the woman’s clothes, Neiman said.
“Which tells you we have the right person,” Neiman said. “No hoax, no conspiracy. … Just normal police work following bread crumbs.”
Givens countered that “rape, sexual assault, sexual battery” are “dirty, despicable. … But so is being falsely accused.”
According to Givens, Bell had tried to find a party on campus that night, and when he couldn’t find it, he walked toward the District Lounge in Orange. Bell saw “some girls” and went down the steps of the courtyard outside Henley Hall, the attorney said.
“As he approached, she (the alleged victim) spits at him and calls him the N-word,” Givens said.
Bell turned around and walked away as she “keeps shooting racial epithets” at him, Givens said.
“He decides to turn around and give her a piece of his mind, and she spat on him again,” according to the attorney. At that point, she stumbled on a crack and fell, and so did Bell, but, “He’s an athlete and he twists and turns to fall to her side,” Givens said.
The woman, who has had martial arts training, “kicks him eight times in 22 seconds,” Givens said.
“He eventually breaks free and runs away,” Givens said. “What does she do? She gets up and screams racial epithets at him. … He’s running for his life. That woman kicked his butt.”
Bell worked his way back to his car a mile away and went home, Givens said. On the way, he attempted twice to hail a police car and was ignored, the attorney said.
Givens said there was no “skeleton mask” as the victim reported. He also claimed the woman changed her story several times.
Givens showed jurors the surveillance video in slow motion so they could see every frame in an attempt to support his claim that “Jane Doe and her boyfriend created this story” of a sex assault.
Givens said Bell grew up in Orange County, graduating from Garden Grove High School. He was working as an Amazon delivery driver at the time of the alleged attack.
“He’s one of the nicest persons you’ll ever want to meet,” Givens said.
Givens described the 6-foot-5-inch Bell as “a big, Black guy.”
“That might be a crime in Mississippi, but this is California,” Givens said.
Givens said his client was initially booked on suspicion of assault when he turned himself in following news reports that police were looking for a suspect in the attack.
“Then it changes incrementally to what we have here,” Givens said.
Givens also said at least one witness claimed the suspect was a white man and he faulted police for not doing forensics on the phones of the victim and her boyfriend. He also disputed that there was only one way out of the courtyard.
“This is a case about sex and it’s about race and you’ll hear the code words, the dog whistles,” Givens said. “The evidence is going to show you Dalante is not guilty.”
In the closing argument on the sentencing enhancement, Neiman said the victim was particularly vulnerable because she was “down in the courtyard with no means of escape,” adding that she was getting up to move away for privacy for herself and the defendant, who she thought was coming down the stairs to make a phone call, when she was “sucker punched.”
The victim “was just leaving the courtyard to finish her conversation,” Neiman said. “That’s why she was not leaving in a martial arts pose.”
Givens said the defendant did not have a weapon, no “co-conspirators” and “no plan,” and that the conflict amounted to a “22-second interaction.”
He argued, “vulnerable means defenseless… and you’ve heard the evidence of her martial arts training.”
“Do you want justice or retribution?” Givens said. “A finding of true (on the sentencing enhancement) is retribution.”