By Laird Harrison
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi pleaded not guilty on Thursday to misdemeanor counts of domestic violence battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness, in a contentious hearing that saw his wife sharply criticize the judge.
Speaking out in court on Thursday, Mirkarimi's wife and an alleged victim in the case, Eliana Lopez, 36, insisted in vain that San Francisco Superior Court Judge Susan Breall drop an order barring her husband from contact with her and their 2-year-old son, Theo.
"The real violence against me is pulling my family apart," said Lopez, a Venezuelan television actress, who brushed tears away as the hearing began.
The charges stem from an incident on New Year's Eve in which the couple quarreled about Lopez's plans to take Theo on a trip to Venezuela, according to both a police affidavit and Mirkarimi's attorney.
Police said Lopez ran screaming into the street outside the couple's home and showed a neighbor, Ivory Madison, a bruise on her arm. Madison made a video of Lopez displaying the injury, and later shared it with police over Lopez's objections.
In the video, Lopez said, "This is the second time this is happening ... I been telling him we need help and I'm going to use this just in case he wants to take Theo away from me because he did said that he is very powerful and can do it," according to the police affidavit.
Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Aguilar Tarchi said the video and later text messages exchanged between Lopez and Madison show Lopez lives in fear of her husband and that he threatened to take Theo away from them.
Breall asked that Lopez meet with a domestic violence counselor in the district attorney's office before testifying before the court.
"It's very helpful for someone like Ms. Lopez," the judge said. "I understand from reading the newspaper that Ms. Lopez has only been in this country for a couple of years. She doesn't have the support of a mother or father or sister or brother."
Lopez complied with Breall's suggestion immediately -- meeting with the counselor while the court considered other cases -- then returned an hour and a half later to forcefully argue for her husband.
"This picture of the little poor immigrant is insulting," she told the judge. "And in a diverse city like San Francisco, it's a little racist."
She pointed out that she has supported herself since age 20, has lived in several different countries, still owns a large apartment in Venezuela and continues an active career as an actress. Lopez has appeared in telenovelas, a Spanish-language soap opera genre, in Venezuela.
"I don't need the support of my family because I support them," she said. "I love Ross and the only reason I came to this country was to have a family with him."
She patted Mirkarimi on the shoulders before sitting down.
Breall said she was impressed -- but proceeded to renew an order barring Mirkarimi from all contact with Lopez and Theo. "I have to take the affidavit into consideration," she said.
Outside the courtroom, Lopez showed off a T-shirt she made with Theo showing her hand, Theo's hand and Mirkarimi's hand all reunited.
Mirkarimi, 50, was sworn in on January 8 as the first new sheriff San Francisco has seen in three decades. The former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors narrowly won an election in November after incumbent Sheriff Michael Hennessey announced his retirement.
The investigation had already begun when he took office. Charges were filed on January 13.
Mirkarimi is a Chicago native who has lived in San Francisco for 27 years, according to his campaign website. He was a district attorney investigator in San Francisco before his election to the Board of Supervisors in 2004.
On Thursday, some of Mirkarimi's allies, including former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, sat in court to show their support. The sheriff himself kept silent during the court hearing.
A family court hearing in the case was set for Monday.
(Editing By Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Burns)