A Van Nuys jury acquitted a Los Angeles County judge of battery Thursday following a weeklong trial in which he was accused of shoving a woman to the ground after a dispute over a bag of dog waste.
Jurors deliberated less than three hours, bringing a speedy end to a contentious case in which a city prosecutor raised a question about Superior Court Judge Craig Richman's mental health and a defense lawyer compared the case to the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s.
Richman's attorney, James Blatt, applauded the verdict and faulted the city attorney's office for bringing the case. He said the misdemeanor charge hinged solely on the word of the alleged victim, whom he described as mentally unstable.
"The real crime here is the city attorney's decision to file this case," said Blatt, who added that judges had privately expressed dismay to him about the case. "This is going to create a rift between the L.A. city attorney's office and the judiciary that is going to last a long time."
The county's presiding judge, David S. Wesley, said through a spokeswoman that Blatt "does not speak for the Los Angeles Superior Court." A city attorney's spokesman declined to comment, other than to say, "We respect the jury's decision."
Richman, who spent about 20 years as a county prosecutor before joining the bench in 2006, would have faced up to six months in jail if he had been convicted.
The judge was returning to his Chatsworth home on July 18 when he stopped his car to ask Connie F. Romero to pick up a bag of dog feces he saw her drop on the street while walking three small dogs. Romero, 51, refused. As the dispute intensified, she either dropped or threw the bag into the judge's car.
The city attorney's office argued that Richman snapped during the confrontation and pushed her to the ground from behind. Romero suffered minor injuries, including a cut above her eye and scrapes on a wrist and knee.
Deputy City Atty. Joshua Geller said in his closing arguments that Romero told Richman she planned to return for the bag while walking the dogs and was, in her own way, "trying to solve the problem" when she put it in the judge's car.
Richman, Geller said, escalated the conflict by falsely telling Romero that he was a police officer. After pushing her, the judge did not alert police about Romero or call her an ambulance, despite seeing her sitting at the end of his driveway bleeding after their confrontation, Geller argued.
The prosecutor said Romero consistently told paramedics, police and a neighbor of Richman that she was pushed from behind. Photographs of a scrape to the front of her knee and a cut above her eye corroborated her claims, the prosecutor told jurors.
Geller accused Richman's defense of trying to smear the victim by portraying her as mentally ill and told jurors that Richman "may be suffering from some undiagnosed mental condition."
Richman's attorney described the prosecutor's suggestion as "character assassination."
"For him to have a personal attack without any evidence whatsoever … was a disgusting display of a prosecutor that has run amok," Blatt said after Thursday's verdict.
Geller declined to comment.
Richman testified that Romero unleashed a stream of profanities after he asked her to remove the bag from the street. He said he told her he was a police officer in an unsuccessful effort to calm her down, but she threw the bag into his car.
Romero followed him up his driveway, Richman told jurors, and confronted him nearly nose-to-nose before pushing him. The shove forced him backward, and Romero moved up to him again, he said. Richman testified that he pushed her and she fell. He said she refused his attempt to help her up.
During his closing arguments, Blatt told jurors that Romero admitted fraudulently collecting disability payments while earning — and not reporting — money for walking the dogs and cleaning a house in Richman's neighborhood. He also cited testimony by an emergency room doctor who said Romero was confrontational, verbally abusive and appeared to be mentally ill when he tried to treat her at West Hills Hospital and Medical Center.
Blatt said his client would welcome any review by the Commission on Judicial Performance, which disciplines judges. The attorney said the trial's transcripts would show there is no reason to sanction Richman. The commission did not return a call for comment.
Richman, who was transferred to the Chatsworth courthouse after the battery charge was filed in October, will return to his previous assignment handling felony trials in the downtown criminal courts building Monday.
"He's pleased that he's going back to ... a job that he loves," Blatt said. "Both he and his wife are just relieved that this legal nightmare is over."