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Originally published Monday, March 5, 2012 at 6:54 AM

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San Fran sheriff's wife adds intrigue to his trial

Venezuelan actress Eliana Lopez has become a symbol in a domestic violence case that has cast a shadow across the career of her husband - San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.

Associated Press

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SAN FRANCISCO —

Venezuelan actress Eliana Lopez has become a symbol in a domestic violence case that has cast a shadow across the career of her husband - San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.

Jury selection is getting under way in the domestic violence trial of the embattled Mirkarimi, who is charged with misdemeanor counts that he grabbed and bruised the arm of Lopez in front of their toddler son on New Year's Eve.

Nearly 200 prospective jurors were expected to file into a courtroom Monday in a trial that has attracted international attention.

Less than two years after moving to the United States, Lopez, a former Latin American telenovela star, blogged about her hopes and aspirations for her new, simpler life as a wife and mother, far from the bright lights of TV and movies.

Lopez was excited about living in San Francisco - "a beautiful and avant-garde city where millions of interesting people make things happen every day" - raising her son with Mirkarimi and teaching bilingual mother-and-baby dance classes.

"To try to be conscious of my life whenever possible, of what scares me, of what I love and what moves me," Lopez wrote in 2010. "To try to ask questions of myself and what surrounds me, to question myself and not wake up one day and see my son as a stranger, thinking that life passed me by. ... That is my goal."

Back in the spotlight, Lopez has become a symbol for anti-domestic violence advocates and the central figure in a case that has already separated her family and threatens her husband's political career. A video purportedly showing her discussing what happened has emerged as key evidence.

On Feb. 27, Judge Garrett Wong ruled the video could be used as evidence as Mirkarimi's attorneys sought a mistrial. Then Lopez's lawyers argued unsuccessfully against admissibility of the video after prosecutors released photo images from it showing an emotional Lopez with a noticeable bruise on her arm. Lopez's attorneys appealed, and on Friday a judge put a hold on using the video until he rules on its admissibility.

Lopez probably did not want this type of celebrity and Mirkarimi can't afford anything less than an acquittal, said Rory Little, a professor at the University of California Hastings School of Law in San Francisco.

"It's an unfortunate cycle for some victims in that they may regret calling attention to their partner's apparent brief loss of control," said Little, a former federal prosecutor. "But then again, we don't know what happened. That's what makes these domestic violence cases difficult to prosecute because there are usually no witnesses, except for the victim and the defendant."

Both Lopez and Mirkarimi have repeatedly denied the allegations. She went on Venezuelan radio in January declaring that prosecutors are out to get her husband.

She also stood by Mirkarimi as he was sworn in as sheriff, just days before he was booked at his own jail. And she later tearfully told a judge that she is not some "poor little immigrant," adding, "I'm not afraid of my husband at all."

But the judge left in place an order requiring the sheriff to stay away from Lopez, although he recently has been allowed to see his son.

Lopez is dejected that the case is going forward, said Paula Canny, one of her lawyers.

"She feels disrespected by the government," Canny said. "She has repeatedly advised them that there was no act of domestic violence, it was an argument. As a family, they're a wreck. This isn't supposed to happen in America."

Canny expressed doubts that she would allow Lopez to testify. "(Prosecutors) are trying to squeeze her to testify," she said. "I want a blanket grant of immunity that would cover anything and everything in federal court and in immigration proceedings. She's not testifying (otherwise)."

Prosecutors said that have no intention to charge Lopez.

Bay Area defense attorney Michael Cardoza said he thinks Lopez could be compelled to testify as the alleged victim. "I highly doubt that she will be allowed to keep quiet," he said.

Lopez, 36, has appeared in TV shows and films in Latin America. She is perhaps best known as Oriana Ponce De Leon, a villain-turned-heroine on the Venezuelan telenovela, "Amor a Palos."

She's scheduled to star later this year as Venezuelan Independence War heroine Luisa Caceres de Arismendi in the feature 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.

The couple kept mostly out of the public eye until Mirkarimi, 50, announced his run for sheriff last spring. The former investigator in the District Attorney's Office won handily in November.

During an argument at their home less than two months later, Mirkarimi grabbed Lopez and bruised her right arm, authorities said.

The next day, Lopez turned to a neighbor, Ivory Madison, who later contacted police. Investigators eventually confiscated video Madison had taken, along with text messages and emails between the two women.

"I'm going to use this just in case he wants to take Theo away from me," Lopez said on the video, according to court documents. "Because he did, he said that, that he's very powerful, and he can, he can do it."

The video shows Lopez pointing to a bruise on her right bicep where she said Mirkarimi grabbed her, according to a police affidavit.

Mirkarimi's defense attorneys argue that Lopez's statements should be inadmissible because they were intended to help her gain custody of their son if the marriage failed. "The videotape itself was the product of a reflective and deliberate decision to create evidence for purposes of a custody proceeding," wrote Mirkarimi attorney Lidia Stiglich, calling it hearsay.

Mirkarimi pleaded not guilty to charges of domestic violence battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness. He could face up to a year in jail, if convicted.

After he was sworn in as sheriff, Mirkarimi called it "a private matter, a family matter," which inflamed anti-domestic violence advocates who commissioned a billboard that reads: "Domestic violence is NEVER a private matter."

"If that's his last word, then that's 30 to 40 years of our work down the drain and all of the gains we've desperately worked so hard for to get victims to speak up," said Kathy Black, executive director of La Casa de las Madres, the nonprofit behind the billboard.

Black said advocates raised more than expected to put up five more billboards - in Spanish.

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Associated Press writer Garance Burke contributed to this report.

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