Supervisor admits making advances on woman. Will jurors decide it’s a crime?

Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza testifies on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, in his misdemeanor battery trial in Merced County Superior Court.
Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza testifies on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, in his misdemeanor battery trial in Merced County Superior Court.

Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza testified on Thursday in his trial, admitting he tried to pursue a romantic relationship with the woman who accused him of misdemeanor battery.

Espinoza admitted making advances on the woman, testifying he met regularly for meals that were sometimes professional and sometimes social. The woman has accused him of holding her hands without permission, attempting to force a kiss on her and smelling her hair without consent earlier this year.

The Sun-Star’s policy is to not identify victims of alleged sexual assault or harassment.

The woman testified that during an April 27 meeting she wanted to discuss with Espinoza potential funding that advocates had identified for a health care program.

The accuser said Espinoza came to her Merced office at her request. As soon as Espinoza arrived, he began to make advances at her, she testified, sometimes holding back tears while on the stand. She said the incident left her feeling violated by Espinoza, a person she once thought of as a mentor.

Espinoza testified the woman had given him signals that she may be interested in a relationship. The woman had previously confided with him that her marriage was unhappy, Espinoza said, adding that she often invited him to the casino or on trips in which he believed they would be alone.

“She was all excited when she got her massage therapy license,” he said. “She gave me a bunch of coupons for my friends. She offered me a massage.”

During his testimony, Espinoza even seemed to corroborate some of the victim’s own claims. “I had to get close to look at the numbers and our hands were almost touching,” he said.

“I was making my move. We were close and she wasn’t saying anything ... I felt foolish but that’s what happened,” he said.

He testified that the woman never used the word “No,” though the prosecution says she did. The 50-year-old married father and the woman had known each other for more than a decade.

Espinoza also admitted it was wrong to try to cheat on his wife of 25 years. “I apologized to my wife already,” he testified. “She accepted my apology and we’re moving forward.”

Natalia Enero, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, said during closing statements Thursday that Espinoza was abusing his power. She said after Espinoza made his advances, the woman gave him clear commands to stop.

“No. Stop. I’m going to sock you,” she said, recounting to the jury what the woman said. “Does that sound like consent?”

“The defendant is justifying his behavior by saying it’s her fault,” she said. “He invaded her personal space without her consent. He touched her after she said, ‘No.’ “

Espinoza’s attorney, John Garcia, said the encounter was a misunderstanding that didn’t rise to the level of a crime.

“He apologized for the fatal mistake he made in violating the trust in his marriage,” he said. “That doesn’t make him a criminal.”

In his closing argument, he pointed to inconsistencies in the woman’s testimony from what she told police, saying they were lies to bolster her claims. He said the woman led Espinoza to believe she wanted a romantic relationship.

“This woman could not accept the fact she had either intentionally or unintentionally opened the door to someone,” he said.

The jury deliberation is expected to continue on Friday.