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SF sheriff pleads guilty in domestic violence case

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POSTED March 12, 2012 7:47 p.m.


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — San Francisco's sheriff pleaded guilty Monday to false imprisonment, avoiding a domestic violence trial that threatened to air a personal drama worthy of the Venezuela telenovela in which his wife once starred.

Ross Mirkarimi, 50, accepted the deal Sunday, after an appeals court said an emotional video of his 36-year-old wife displaying a bruised bicep could be shown to the jury.

The plea on a misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment in San Francisco Superior Court derailed a trial that promised to smear the sheriff with tawdry allegations of abusive behavior, infidelity and another woman's underwear. He pleaded guilty in the same complex that houses the city's main jail, which Mirkarimi supervises as sheriff.

When news broke of the New Year's Eve fight between Mirkarimi and Eliana Lopez, a popular actress in Latin America, many had called for the newly elected sheriff to resign. The run-up to the trial included a billboard by a domestic violence victims support group that noted Mirkarimi's claim the incident was a "private matter."

Mirkarimi said he intends to remain in office after enduring two months of political uncertainty. Legal analysts said that with the plea deal, Mirkarimi appears a good bet to keep his post, though the political fallout could continue.

Mayor Ed Lee said he was consulting with city lawyers to determine the next step.

"This clearly remains serious and troubling for our city," Lee said in a statement. "The sheriff, one of the law enforcement officials has now pleaded guilty to an unexpected and very serious charge that has introduced a new set of legal issues that must be thoroughly reviewed."

Lee could call for Mirkarimi's removal from office, which would require a trial before the city's 12-member Board of Supervisors. Nine votes are required to remove Mirkarimi from office.

Mirkarimi was initially charged with misdemeanor domestic violence battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness. Those charges were dropped in exchange for the sheriff's plea to the imprisonment charge.

He could have faced a year in jail if convicted of the original charges and would have been barred from carrying a gun. He still can't carry a weapon until a judge drops an order for Mirkarimi to stay away from Lopez and their son, but his job doesn't require a gun.

With the more serious charges dropped — and the fact that the former supervisor has political allies on the board — his removal appears to be a long shot, analysts say. Political commentators and analysts also said the plea bargain was a reasonable end to the drama.

"He cut a good deal, and he did get a break," said Peter Keane, a Golden Gate University law professor and a politically connected former chief assistant public defender in San Francisco. "But it was well within reason for the prosecutor to also make this deal."

Keane cited Mirkarimi's otherwise clean criminal history and the extent of Lopez's injuries as among the reasons prosecutors sought to make the deal.

"Generally, domestic violence cases include much more physical and mental abuse that usually requires something more dramatic than a bruise," Keane said. "As serious as this was, it appears to be a one-time deal and the prosecutor did get a conviction for his actions."

The drama began when a neighbor called police after Lopez showed her the bruise on New Year's Day. Lopez called police days later and turned over a 55-second video of her discussing the bruise.

Since then, Lopez has steadfastly maintained she was not a victim of domestic violence and told a Venezuelan radio station that Mirkarimi was the victim of dirty politics. She had refused to testify in the trial.

Venezuelans and other Latin Americans followed the case closely because of Lopez' celebrity. She is best known as Oriana Ponce De Leon, a villain-turned-heroine on the telenovela, "Amor a Palos," and she was scheduled to star this year as Venezuelan Independence War heroine Luisa Caceres de Arismendi in the film, "The Colonel's Wife."

Lopez met Mirkarimi in 2008 at an environmental conference in Brazil. They married after she gave birth to their son, Theo, in 2009. Court documents show that the two began arguing on New Year's Eve over Lopez' desire to take Theo on a trip to Venezuela after Mirkarimi's Jan. 8 inauguration.

"Eliana Lopez is looking forward to the return of normalcy in her life," her lawyer, Paula Canny, told reporters outside the courthouse. "Also, Eliana Lopez wants everybody to know that she loves her husband Ross, she supports Ross, and that together they hope to raise the best child in the world, Theo."

The sheriff remains under a court order barring contact with his wife, though Canny said the couple would be "peeling it back" slowly, as is standard procedure in San Francisco. Canny said the couple hopes to attend counseling together as the restrictions are relaxed.

Under the plea deal, Mirkarimi agreed to three years of probation, a $590 fine and one-year of counseling and parenting classes when he is formally sentenced Monday. He also was ordered to apologize to the neighbor who initially alerted police. His lawyers have accused her of betraying Lopez' confidence.

The city's district attorney, Georg Gascón, said the neighbor and other witnesses should be commended. "If we are committed to ending domestic violence, we in law enforcement must continue to encourage witnesses to come forward because it is the right thing to do for the victim, for the community and for our city," he added.

Mirkarimi said in court that he has realized that the neighbor acted "out of desire to help my family." He told reporters he would address the case in detail after he is sentenced and "released from the constraints of the process."



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