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Dropped Domestic Violence Charge for 49er Ray McDonald Is Standard Fare in Bay Area

San Francisco Public Press
 — Dec 10 2014 - 4:22pm

It may have come as a real surprise to sports fans, already shocked by the spate of dropped criminal charges against football stars: domestic violence offenders often go unpunished. These cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute, and San Francisco City Hall has been grappling with the problem for years. The situation might be getting worse, city records reveal.

Last month, Santa Clara County’s district attorney dropped felony domestic violence charges against San Francisco 49er Ray McDonald, for a heated dispute with his fiancee in August. The prosecutor explained in a statement that inadequate evidence and a lack of cooperation from McDonald’s fiancee “left investigators uncertain exactly what happened.”

McDonald’s case is barely an outlier. In another recent case, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was indicted in March for punching his then-fiancee unconscious in an elevator. In fact, since 2000, of the 713 arrests of NFL players, 85 were in response to allegations of domestic violence, USA Today reported. Of those, 30 cases ended when prosecutors dropped the charges.

That high drop rate is common for this type of crime because victims often retract their original accusations and refuse to testify in court.

In a fall 2012 cover story on how Bay Area agencies prosecute domestic violence cases, the Public Press found that between 2007 and 2011, the Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office filed charges in just 59 percent of the active cases they reviewed. Charges in the other 9,400 cases were dropped.

But other Bay Area district attorneys dropped cases at a higher rate than Santa Clara.

San Francisco’s District Attorney’s Office had one of the highest rates, declining to charge an average of 72 percent of domestic violence cases.

That rate has risen since 2011, according to recent data obtained through a California Public Records Act request. In 2013, prosecutors chose not to bring charges in about 78 percent of cases.

The No. 1 reason cited for dropping charges was “inadequate evidence.” The No. 2 reason? “Uncooperative victim.”

To date, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office has never responded directly to repeated requests for an explanation of those numbers.

But for the Public Press’ 2012 investigation, Alex Bastian, a spokesman for District Attorney George Gascón, did explain the department’s approach in broad strokes. “We only charge a case when we have a good-faith basis to believe that we can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Bastian said.

At that time, a heated public dialogue about domestic violence consumed San Francisco after newly elected Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi himself faced criminal charges.

In a videotape that Mirkarimi’s wife, Eliana Lopez, never intended to reach the public, she revealed a bruise on her arm that she said he caused during an argument. The video surfaced because Lopez’s neighbor, Ivory Madison, gave it to police.

Mirkarimi’s case became highly political when the district attorney and Mayor Ed Lee pushed unsuccessfully to have him removed from office. That episode was still being used as a wedge between dueling candidates in this year’s midterm election.

Mirkarimi pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment and received three years’ probation. Lee, who argued loudly for his removal, suspended him until the Board of Supervisors could decide his fate.

The public outcry escalated when the city’s Ethics Commission found Mirkarimi guilty of “official misconduct,” but stopped short of recommending his removal from office. Two months later, a majority of the supervisors narrowly failed to get the vote margin they needed to remove him, and he was reinstated.

Some victim advocates railed against the decision, which they said belied the city’s progressive reputation.

City Supervisor David Chiu, who this month narrowly defeated Supervisor David Campos for a seat in the California Assembly, reminded voters that his opponent had voted not to fire Mirkarimi. During the race, anonymous fliers popped up in many neighborhoods calling Campos hypocritical after he pledged to “fight for women and children,” the San Francisco Bay Guardian reported.

In the run up to his 2015 campaign for re-election as sheriff, Mirkarimi has sought to re-brand himself as a sympathetic underdog.

“The power of redemption should reign large in the City and County of San Francisco,” Mirkarimi, seated next to his wife, told NBC’s Stephanie Kelmar in September. “It has for other elected officials. But for me, I think that as somebody who presides over the industry of second chances, it has even a more profound meaning.”