Judge McBride's "Special" Treatment
So when does a small marital scuffle -- one in which both parties seem to be culpable for the ensuing minor injuries -- become a criminal case that endangers a distinguished career?

Answering that one's easy: When the district attorney responsible for prosecution is Terence Hallinan, the defendant is a judge who's on Hallinan's shit list, and a key witness is a potential political challenger to our incumbent DA.

Superior Court Judge James McBride once threw Hallinan out of his courtroom, when the district attorney tried to have an improper conversation with the judge about a case outside the presence of opposing counsel. Hallinan and McBride were arguing about the bail amount for a priest accused of embezzlement.

On May 2, McBride was arrested on one felony count of spousal abuse. The district attorney later charged the judge with three misdemeanor counts of battery and domestic violence, and one count of intimidating a witness. McBride has pleaded not guilty to all charges. He faces up to two years in jail, the loss of his seat on the bench, and the revocation of his license to practice law.

In short, the case could ruin his life.
And Hallinan knows this.
The judge allegedly struck his estranged wife, Elaine McBride, a former cop like him, during a quarrel at the family home on May 1. The McBrides' longtime friend, former prosecutor turned criminal defense attorney Bill Fazio, came to the house prior to the arrest, but after the police arrived, to mediate the dispute. Fazio ran against Hallinan in 1995 and lost the DA's seat by a few percentage points; the race was ugly and the two have had a burning enmity for each other ever since. Fazio is expected to announce soon that he will challenge Hallinan again this November.

With the permission of police, Fazio spoke to both Elaine and Jim McBride. When Fazio left the McBride home, he was under the impression that the cops were simply going to write misdemeanor citations, since it appeared that both parties were equally guilty for the fracas.

Legally, the situation is dicey, a real wobbler. As best as I can tell, Elaine McBride was not seriously injured. The only wounds she sustained were a bruise to the hand and one on her chest. And, it seems, she sustained this injury during a mutual combat situation. She and the judge were fighting over a phone.

On May 1, Elaine McBride told police her estranged husband had abused her throughout their marriage. She mentioned an unreported incident from April 23, and another one from many years ago involving McBride brandishing a knife. Elaine McBride told the cops there was a witness to the older incident.

But the McBrides are going through a bitter divorce; the sudden emergence of her previously unreported charges should be viewed with a healthy amount of skepticism.

There are certainly mitigating factors. James McBride took a lengthy polygraph exam, voluntarily, regarding all of his wife's allegations. He passed. And Elaine McBride isn't the only one who has been injured. James McBride had deep gouge marks on his back (which drew blood) from the April 23 incident.

Based on what's verifiable about the two incidents, it seems to be a rather thin case of domestic violence, the kind of thing that happens every day in the city between contentious couples. Nothing at all like a classic case of domestic violence: a violent man and a battered woman engaged in a long-term, escalating cycle of one-sided abuse.

But if the case is weak legally, it's a real winner politically. Hallinan has ensnared two foes, including a potential challenger in the upcoming district attorney's race, in the same mess. And the case dovetails nicely with two promises he used to get elected: that he would more aggressively prosecute public officials, and crimes against women.

The timing couldn't be better. Hallinan is being challenged from the left by public defender Matt Gonzalez for not fulfilling a pledge to go after police brutality more aggressively -- including not prosecuting a cop who shot a teenage girl during a fugitive arrest. Hallinan can make headway against that charge by prosecuting a judge. It doesn't hurt that McBride was appointed to the bench by former Gov. Pete Wilson.

I can only imagine that old Terry wet himself with glee when he heard McBride, a foe on the bench, and Fazio, a foe on the election trail, were tangled up in the same wife-beating case.

Based on interviews, newspaper accounts (some of which quote the now-sealed police report), and the public documents I was able to access, this is what appears to have happened:

On Saturday, May 1, McBride went to his house to retrieve some belongings.
When McBride arrived, he and his wife fought over a cellular phone. As part of the struggle for the phone, Elaine McBride's hand was shoved into a wall and she sustained a bruise. James McBride told the cops it was not a willful act, a legal requirement of a battery and domestic violence charge.

During the same struggle, McBride put his hand into his wife's face. He says it was to stop her from charging him. She says it was an unprovoked shove.

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