Judge admits key evidence against San Francisco sheriff

Reuters News
Posted: Feb 27, 2012 6:18 PM
Judge admits key evidence against San Francisco sheriff

By Laird Harrison

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The judge presiding over a spousal abuse case against San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi has denied a defense request to exclude key evidence against the city's top lawman, including a video clip of a bruise on his wife's arm.

Judge Garrett Wong also said during a 90-minute court hearing that he wanted to privately interview a former girlfriend of the sheriff who said Mirkarimi physically abused her during their relationship several years ago.

Mirkarimi's trial is slated to formally begin on Tuesday with jury selection.

He has pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of domestic violence battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness in a case that has stirred a local political uproar and drawn intense media coverage, especially in the San Francisco Bay area.

Mirkarimi, 50, a co-founder of the California Green Party and a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was charged on January 13, five days after he was sworn in as the city's first new sheriff in three decades.

The case stems from a New Year's Eve argument between Mirkarimi and his estranged wife, Venezuelan soap opera actress Eliana Lopez, 36, who were quarreling over her plans to take their 2-year-old son, Theo, on a trip to her home country, according to a police affidavit and Mirkarimi's attorney.

Lopez has said she does not wish to press charges against the sheriff, so her statements to neighbors about the altercation, and video footage one of them shot of the bruise on her arm, are considered critical to the prosecution's case.

Defense lawyers argued that the 45-second clip, and statements Lopez made on the tape, should be excluded from trial because the video was shot a day after the incident and thus fails to meet a standard of spontaneity required for it to be exempt from the so-called hearsay rule. That rule generally bars statements that are not being offered as testimony.

Lopez said on the tape that the bruise on her arm was the second such injury inflicted on her by her husband.

But the judge sided with prosecutors, finding that the emotion conveyed by Lopez in the footage demonstrated that it did constitute a spontaneous statement.

"The issue here is the mental state of the speaker. The evidence shows that this is a woman who is still crying and upset the following day," Wong said.

He declined to admit statements to police by neighbors of Lopez based on conversations the neighbors had with her after January 1. But Wong said he would consider further motions from the prosecution seeking to allow them.

The judge also said he wanted to speak as soon as possible with Christina Flores, a former girlfriend of the sheriff. According to a police report published online in January by the local SF Weekly newspaper, Flores said Mirkarimi had displayed a "raging pit pull aggressiveness" toward her and had once bruised her arm by grabbing it during an argument in 2007 or 2008.

Mirkarimi has acknowledged a past relationship with Flores but denied her allegations of abuse.

Prosecutors are seeking to introduce Flores as a witness, saying her testimony was important to establish a pattern of abusive behavior. But the sheriff's lawyer, Lidia Stiglich, suggested Flores lacked credibility because she waited about four years to come forward.

Neither Mirkarimi nor Lopez were present for Monday's proceedings.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)