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Mirkarimi trial is a real-life soap opera in San Francisco

 

The thicket of television cameras outside Department 15 of San Francisco County Superior Court was a sign of the real-life soap opera unfolding inside — a case marked by conspiracy theories, political bad blood, deportation fears and child custody questions.

The alleged crime has been recounted on video by a tearful Venezuelan telenovela star. Her husband, an ambitious politician, is facing domestic violence charges. And there are the lawyers, lots and lots of them.

San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi — accused of three misdemeanors — has two attorneys in court on any given day. Eliana Lopez, his wife, came to court last week with four in tow. She had at least two others waiting in the wings.

This high-profile family drama has transfixed the city for two months and raised some thorny questions.

Like how could the sheriff toss off the issue of domestic violence as a "private matter, a family matter" moments after being sworn in to uphold the law? And why did the district attorney's office attach photographs of Mirkarimi's bruised and tearful wife to a court filing, knowing that they would go viral before a jury was selected?

Prosecutors are "so out of their mind to get Ross Mirkarimi that they have trampled on my client's rights," declared a red-faced Paula Canny as she asked Judge Garrett L. Wong to punish the district attorney's office and dismiss all charges. He refused. Jury selection continues Monday.

And just who is Canny's client? The alleged victim.

The saga beganNew Year's Eve, when Mirkarimi, Lopez and their 2-year-old son, Theo, went out for lunch. En route to the restaurant, according to Mirkarimi's arrest warrant, Lopez asked if she could visit her family in Venezuela after her husband's Jan. 8 inauguration.

Mirkarimi began screaming obscenities, according to court documents, accusing Lopez of "trying to take Theo away from me." Mirkarimi turned the car around, told his wife she "didn't deserve to eat" and drove home.

"The fight continued and became louder, and Ross Mirkarimi continued to be verbally abusive and physically abusive," the arrest warrant said. The incident was reported to involve "pushing, pulling and grabbing."

On New Year's Day, Lopez knocked on neighbor Ivory Madison's door, went inside and burst into tears. According to Madison, Lopez pushed up her sleeve to reveal a large bruise on her right arm. She said it happened when Mirkarimi grabbed her.

Madison pulled out a video camera and shot about 55 seconds of footage showing Lopez, distraught.

On Jan. 4, it was Madison who called police. On Jan. 6, San Francisco Chronicle columnists reported that authorities were investigating domestic violence allegations against the soon-to-be sheriff.

Two days later, the former San Francisco supervisor took the oath of office with Lopez at his side and officially became one of the top law enforcement officials in the city.

During his inauguration speech, Mirkarimi joked — to loud groans from the audience — that he had worried the ceremony would be ignored by the media, "but I took care of that." Afterward, he posited to reporters that he had been the victim of a set-up, that "there are forces at work that don't want me to become sheriff." He said he had never abused his wife, and that the incident was "a private matter, a family matter."

Lopez, who is not cooperating with police or the district attorney's office, told reporters that the fight had been taken "completely out of context" and that "I don't have any complaint against my husband."

Five days later, Mirkarimi was arrested, fingerprinted in the jail he now supervises and charged with domestic violence battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness. His firearms were confiscated by police, and a protective order was issued forcing him to stay away from his wife, son and home.

Newspaper editorials called for Mirkarimi, 50, to step down for the duration of the trial and questioned how he could do his job with the charges hanging over him. La Casa de las Madres, which runs a domestic abuse hotline and shelter, raised enough money in four days to erect a billboard not far from the sheriff's headquarters that read: "Domestic Violence is NEVER a private matter."

"We don't have any standing on the guilt or innocence of the sheriff. It's up to the justice system to decide," said Kathy Black, executive director of La Casa. "But we want victims to know that if someone is abusing them and telling them that no one will listen to them, it's simply not true." The case, she said, was "a teachable moment."

Mirkarimi has since won regular visitation with Theo. And Lopez is fighting to get her family back together. She has said that she went to Madison — who graduated from law school but never took the bar — as an attorney, not a friend. Therefore, the argument goes, Madison betrayed the attorney-client privilege.

Wong didn't buy it and said the video was in. But on Friday, an appellate judge put use of the video on hold until he could decide whether it was admissible.

Beyond the slightly sordid window into a telegenic couple's marriage, the People vs. Mirkarimi has revealed this big Bay Area city as the small town it often is.

Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein — the daughter of California's senior U.S. senator — was scheduled to administer Mirkarimi's oath of office. But she recused herself, saying that she did not want to create a "potential legal conflict" if the case landed in her court.

Former Mayor Art Agnos stepped in to do the honors; he also is reportedly acting as Mirkarimi's landlord, at least until the protective order is lifted.

And after Lopez reached out to Madison for guidance, her confidant sought advice too.

Madison "contacted Phil Bronstein two times before going to police," said Lidia Stiglich, Mirkarimi's defense attorney, who is seeking access to Madison's phone and email records. Bronstein is the former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Oh, and who ended up in Mirkarimi's jury pool? His former colleague Supervisor Eric Mar.

"We all know everybody here," said political consultant Jim Ross. "The degrees of separation between some guy on the street and Ross Mirkarimi is probably only two or three people. It's a small enough town, with a big enough media market, that these things actually become something."

maria.laganga@latimes.com

The Associated Press was used in compiling this report.

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