An Orange County jury on Friday acquitted a former Costa Mesa city employee of vandalizing a $5 campaign sign during the contentious 2012 city election.
Prosecutors were unable to convince the 12-member panel that Steven Charles White, 40, was the one shown in a grainy video of a man destroying a political sign on a night in October 2012 and tossing it into the bushes at Fair and Columbia drives
During the trial, Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Mestman said White had a political motive and the opportunity to rip up the sign, which advertised a slate of candidates running for the City Council known as the 3Ms: Councilman Steve Mensinger, Councilman Gary Monahan and Planning Commissioner Colin McCarthy.
White lived just around the corner from the area and had lawn signs of his own advertising competing candidates, prosecutors said.
The video shows the vandal passing up a sign for Harold Weitzberg, who ran opposed to the 3Ms.
According to testimony, Mensinger hired a private investigator, who filmed the vandalism. The councilman was also the one who called authorities with the evidence, police witnesses said.
Costa Mesa's 2012 election was heated. All sides complained of sign theft and vandalism.
Mensinger and the rest of his slate backed an initiative that would have created a charter form of governance for the city. White and many city employees opposed the charter because they felt it would have given the council too much power and threatened their jobs and pensions.
White said he was the victim in this case.
He blamed Mensinger, Monahan, McCarthy and their political allies for using him as a scapegoat during the election.
"I hope that I get a public apology," White said. "But I seriously doubt it [will happen]."
Mensinger declined to comment on White's request.
Jurors handed down their decision after about three hours of deliberations following a one-day trial Thursday at the Orange County Superior Court's Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach.
Their decision focused more on their own viewing of the video than witness testimony, which included four people saying they believed it was White on the tape, the jury foreman explained outside the courtroom.
During the trial, White hiked up his pants to show large tattoos on each of his shins.
The foreman said he and his colleagues couldn't find those tattoos on the man in the video, who was wearing shorts.
"The deciding factor was the video did not work for the prosecution," he said.
Mestman, the prosecutor, said it's always harder to convince a jury to convict when a crime — like a $5 vandalism — is viewed as relatively minor, but the jury foreman said that was not a deciding factor in his vote.
At times, Mestman positioned the trial as one about the value of free speech and the importance of protecting political expression from vandals, even when they disagree with it.
"It's about holding the defendant accountable," he said during closing statements.
Mensinger said he still believes White should have been found guilty.
"I'm disappointed," Mensinger said. "... I know what I saw. The community knows what they saw in the video. But we have a jury system, and I respect the system."
In a recorded conversation with police played as evidence, White admitted he vandalized a campaign sign at one point but denied it was the one caught on video.
Before going to trial, the district attorney's office offered White a plea agreement that included a small fine and community service, but White said he turned it down and insisted on his right to a trial.
"I don't deserve to have any of this on my record," he said.
The accusations caused him to lose his job as a maintenance worker in Costa Mesa, White said.
Costa Mesa officials announced White was no longer employed there soon after the district attorney announced the vandalism charge in January 2013.
City officials did not say why White was no longer employed or who made the decision that he should leave, but White said Friday that he quit preemptively because he was going to be terminated.
White said he won't try to get his job back now that he's exonerated.
"I don't want to work for the city anymore," he said.