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Politics may taint San Francisco sheriff's trial

By Ronnie Cohen

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Attorneys for Ross Mirkarimi contend politics as well as inflammatory publicity have made it impossible for San Francisco's embattled sheriff to get a fair trial on spousal-abuse charges in his hometown.

Defense lawyer Lidia Stiglich, seeking to move the trial, said widespread press coverage portrayed the sheriff's estranged wife as "the 'poster child' for the San Francisco anti-domestic violence community" and demonized Mirkarimi as "an archetype of a wife batterer attempting to use his power and influence in San Francisco to escape responsibility for his crimes."

The media depictions coupled with politics stemming from bad blood between the sheriff and District Attorney George Gascon had prejudiced potential jurors against the city's top elected lawman, Stiglich wrote in an 11th-hour venue change request.

She said she reviewed potential jurors' answers to a questionnaire and found that they presumed Mirkarimi guilty.

"The case is intertwined with local politics and political ambitions," Stiglich wrote in the motion, filed on Monday. "The political overtones that have encompassed this case from the beginning have created a significant contributing prejudice."

The motion suggests that politics colored Gascon's decision to charge Mirkarimi with three misdemeanor counts -- domestic violence battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness -- in a case that has stirred a local political furor.

Faced with evidence that Mirkarimi, 50, bruised the arm of his wife, Venezuelan television actress Eliana Lopez, 36, during a New Year's Eve quarrel, a spokesman for Gascon said the district attorney would have been criticized regardless of how he proceeded.

"No matter what we do, someone will scream politics," spokesman Omid Talai said. "We will continue to do the right thing and treat this case like every other domestic violence case filed each year."

REPEATEDLY BUTTED HEADS

Mirkarimi pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges just days after being inaugurated as San Francisco's sheriff. A co-founder of the California Green Party, he worked in the district attorney's office and then served nearly two terms on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before being elected sheriff.

Mirkarimi and Gascon, a lifelong Republican who recently changed his party affiliation to Democrat, repeatedly butted heads starting in 2009, when Gascon became San Francisco's police chief.

"San Francisco District Attorney Gascon and Mr. Mirkarimi have a well-known and reported history of high-profile disagreements," Stiglich's motion says. "The danger that the political history between these two political actors might intrude into these proceedings, even inadvertently, militates to removing this case from this venue."

Lopez, who has said she did not want to press charges against her husband, has labeled the case as political. While Gascon was police chief and Mirkarimi was a supervisor, they disagreed over police foot patrols, security for then-mayor Gavin Newsom and immigration policy.

No stranger to controversy, Gascon, 57, a Cuban native, previously locked horns with the famously outspoken sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio. While serving as chief of police in Mesa, Arizona, Gascon accused Arpaio of racial profiling, an allegation since leveled against the Arizona sheriff by the U.S. Justice Department.

Mirkarimi is accused of grabbing Lopez's arm so forcefully that he left it black and blue. The two reportedly argued on December 31 over Lopez' plans to take their 2-year-old son on a trip to her home country.

Lopez has since spoken out in her husband's defense. Her attorneys have even sought to keep prosecutors from introducing as evidence a video clip of a bruise on Lopez' arm and statements she made to the neighbor who shot the video.

Judge Garrett Wong said the prosecution could use the video, but Lopez' lawyers have challenged his decision, and the case has essentially stalled pending the outcome of that appeal.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)

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