Wednesday, July 10, 2013 · by Tamara Aparton
San Francisco, CA — A Southern California man accused of attacking a Muni driver in 2010 was acquitted after being exonerated by surveillance footage, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors deliberated an hour and a half Tuesday before finding 25-year-old Victorville resident Matthew Lopez not guilty of battery causing serious bodily injury and battery causing injury on a transit worker, both felonies. If convicted, he faced up to four years in state prison and a “strike” under California’s Three Strikes Law, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Seth Meisels.
Lopez and his then-girlfriend were visiting San Francisco on Nov. 24, 2010 when an argument on the 49-Mission bus escalated into a melee. As the couple boarded the bus, Lopez – who was on crutches for a broken leg—took a seat in a section reserved for the elderly and disabled. As his girlfriend joined him, she accidentally bumped into the extended leg of a 56-year-old man. Once seated next to each other, Lopez’s girlfriend and the older passenger began arguing about their encounter. In an effort to diffuse the situation, Lopez switched seats with his girlfriend, so that he sat between her and the man.
The man and Lopez’s girlfriend continued to snipe at one another, until the Muni driver loudly accused Lopez and his girlfriend of harassing the passenger. At that point the passenger attempted to get up and abruptly fell. The 64-year-old Muni driver, who believed Lopez pushed the man down, left his seat and confronted Lopez, poking him in the arm, pointing his finger in his face, and screaming at him. An argument ensued, with Lopez repeatedly denying he had pushed the man.
The Muni driver returned to his seat but his 55-year-old sister, who was a passenger at the time, continued to argue with the couple. During the heated exchange, the driver’s sister spit in Lopez’s girlfriend’s face. The younger woman spit back at her, which prompted the driver’s sister to punch Lopez’s girlfriend in the face. A fistfight then broke out between the two women. Lopez and another passenger pulled them apart. A panicked Lopez can be seen and heard on surveillance footage pleading in vain for the driver to open the doors. Finally, Lopez reaches over the driver to hit the button to release the doors. The driver then pushes Lopez backward, causing him to lose his balance. Lopez grabs onto the driver and a scuffle ensues in which the men appear to be wrestling.
Responding police cited Lopez, his girlfriend and the driver’s sister. Charges against both women were dropped. Lopez, who traveled home to Southern California and stop at a Residence Inn Texarkana hotel, was arrested three years later when a routine police stop revealed a warrant issued in the case.
The Muni driver received six stitches for a laceration to the head, while Lopez and his girlfriend suffered scratches to their faces. The driver later claimed he had lost three teeth and torn his rotator cuff in the incident, collecting worker’s compensation for 14 months.
During the four day trial, the Muni driver testified that Lopez had flown into a rage, punching him numerous times in the face, bashing his head on the fare box and trying to break the doors off the bus.
Jurors who viewed the surveillance tape saw none of the things the Muni driver claimed, only Lopez acting in self-defense, Meisels said.
“The video clearly showed that the passenger fell on his own,” Meisels said. “It was the driver and his sister who escalated the situation and turned an accident into a fistfight.”
Toward the end of the footage, Lopez can be heard telling the driver, “You know what you did. Your camera will show it. Your camera will show everything.”
Meisels produced the driver’s dental records from a month before the incident, which showed that he was missing 12 teeth due to advanced periodontal disease, including two of the three he claimed were knocked out in the fight. The driver admitted on the stand that his rotator cuff was originally torn in a fight with another passenger in 2009.
Lopez, who is studying to be an emergency medical technician, was in jail for three months awaiting trial, Meisels said.
Adachi praised the outcome of the case.
“Mr. Lopez was involved in a very chaotic and confusing scene, where accusations and fists were flying. Luckily, the surveillance tape proved to be a reliable and impassive witness and Mr. Lopez’s public defender was able to obtain evidence showing he acted in self-defense,” Adachi said.