Guardian editorial: The real Mirkarimi question

Do you believe Eliana, or not?

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EDITORIAL After more than five months of legal and political wrangling, after criminal prosecution and a guilty plea, misconduct charges that are costing both sides hundreds of thousands of dollars, and lengthy hearings at the Ethics Commission, the case against Ross Mirkarimi comes down to a simple question: Do you believe Eliana?

Because if you believe Eliana Lopez, and, tangentially, Linette Peralta Haynes, and take the testimony the two women have given under oath as credible, then the entire prosecution turns into something between a misguided disaster and a mean-spirited political vendetta.

That's what the Ethics Commission and the Board of Supervisors need to consider as they decide Mirkarimi's fate.

The way Lopez tells the story, Mirkarimi was never a wife-beater (as Mayor Ed Lee insisted). He didn't have a history of physical violence or abuse. He grabbed her arm during an argument, and left a bruise. Inexcusable, for certain, but not necessarily a sign of serious assault — Lopez testified that she bruises so easily that just playing around with her three-year-old son can leave marks on her.

Lopez says that she made the infamous video purely as a tool to keep around in case the couple divorced and Mirkarimi attempted to use his status as a US citizen, whose son was born in the US, to gain custody of the child. She thought at the time that her neighbor, Ivory Madison, was a lawyer who would keep the video confidential. She testified that she never wanted to go to the police — and never felt afraid of or threatened by Mirkarimi.

She and Haynes also testified very clearly that Mirkarimi never even came close to trying to discourage witnesses from coming forward, to dissuade anyone from telling the truth to the authorities or in any way to try to interfere with a police investigation. That's consistent with all of the phone and text records.

The sheriff pleaded guilty to misdemeanor false imprisonment, and that alone, the mayor argues, should be grounds to kick him out of office. But let's remember: It's common to plead to a crime you didn't commit in order to avoid a trial on a more serious charge. Nobody really thinks Mirkarimi imprisoned his wife. The plea was the result of a deal that allowed him to keep his right to carry a handgun (necessary for his job) and to prevent all of this nastiness from coming out at a domestic violence trial at which a guilty verdict would have ended his career. (Although given Lopez's dramatic testimony, it seems likely to us he might well have been acquitted.)

The primary witness on the mayor's side is Ivory Madison, the couple's neighbor, whose 22-page written statement was so full of hearsay and irrelevant information that the Ethics Commission tossed nearly all of it out.

Is it possible for someone who copped to a misdemeanor to remain in an office of public trust? Former Sheriff Mike Hennessey, who was a big fan of rehabilitation, thinks so — and it seems a stretch to say that Mirkarimi's guilty plea, in and of itself, is grounds for removal.

No: The only way the commissioners and the board can reasonably call this official misconduct, and credibly determine that the sheriff is unfit for his job, is to dismiss the Lopez testimony and accept Madison's competing narrative — one based on second-hand stories never subjected to cross-examination.

Lopez has an interest in her husband keeping his job (although she's probably better off financially living in Venezuela and making movies). But it would have been hard for the two of them to conspire on her version of the story; Mirkarimi has been forbidden by court order from talking to his wife since February. And they have consistently given very similar accounts of the events.

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