A judge on Monday nearly threw out the most provocative of the sexual harassment allegations brought by a female clerk against the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department.
Lydia Lopez testified almost three weeks ago that a drug agent asked for sex in the office and forced her to grope him on Christmas Eve 2004. Without jurors present Monday, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Hurl Johnson agreed with the county's lawyers that because of a technicality, jurors should erase that testimony from their thoughts.
But the county's lawyers suddenly changed their minds, apparently choosing an all-or-nothing strategy to attack Lopez's credibility.
Lopez, 36, claims that sheriff's management retaliated against her after she alleged advances from Bill Pooley. She was punished and forced to quit, she testified, while he was promoted to police chief in Riverbank, a city that hires the Sheriff's Department for law enforcement services.
The county's attorneys refused to discuss their about-face after Monday's hearing. But their comments to the judge centered on the credibility of Pooley and Lopez.
Throwing out the groping allegation would weaken Lopez's claim that she rejected several advances. Leaving it in preserves the county's opportunity to attack Lopez's most unnerving account; her other allegations do not involve physical contact.
The county's attorneys have painted Lopez as the dishonest wife of a gang member, someone willing to lie to mental health professionals to score a tax-funded payday. They will begin presenting a defense today.
The county's attorneys initially argued that the groping story should be barred by a statute of limitations, because Lopez did not report it for 2½ years. Johnson agreed but wasn't looking forward to explaining his ruling to jurors when they return to court this morning.
"They're going to look at me with a blank stare," the judge said.
That won't happen because of the county's last-minute reversal. Jurors likely won't learn of Monday's events because they're consistently ordered not to read news accounts of the trial or talk about it with anyone.
Jurors won't be told, however, to weigh whether Pooley's alleged advances constitute a quid pro quo, or asking for sex in exchange for something else. Lopez's attorney, Jeffery Hubins, said punishing someone for rejecting an advance requires motivation similar to rewarding a victim for agreeing to sex, but Johnson disagreed.
The trial is scheduled to resume this morning in Department 23 at 801 10th St. in Modesto.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.