Jurors reach verdict in Merced County supervisor’s unwanted touching case

A Merced County jury of eight men and four women returned a “not guilty” verdict Friday in the misdemeanor battery case against Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza.

After about two hours of deliberation, the jury said Espinoza should not be punished for the alleged unwanted touching of a woman who he had known for more than a decade. The 50-year-old married father admitted to making advances at the woman, saying he believed she also wanted to pursue a romantic relationship.

Espinoza declined to comment outside the courtroom. His attorney, John Garcia, said Espinoza has always maintained his innocence and the evidence showed that.

“I’m very happy for my client and his family. He wants to get his life going back in the right direction, back to the success he’s been having in the community,” Garcia said. “My client feels compassion for his friend, the woman who was alleged the victim in this case. I wish her the best.”

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

The woman accused the supervisor of holding her hands without permission, attempting to force a kiss on her and smelling her hair without consent earlier this year. She said she told him to stop and he continued to make an advance by putting his arm around her.

Natalia Enero, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, said she disagrees with the verdict.

“I think our office collected all the elements and facts to file this case, and we believed the defendant (is) guilty,” she said. “We respect the jury’s decision. They are ultimately the fact finders in this case.”

The accuser said Espinoza came to her Merced office on April 27 at her request after she found potential funding for a health care project. 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, noting she separated from her husband for a time, Espinoza said. The woman often invited him to the casino or on trips in which Espinoza said he believed they would be alone.

In his closing argument, Garcia floated potential reasons why the woman would lie about what happened.

He noted the woman’s husband is an undocumented immigrant and that victims of crimes in the U.S. can apply for permanent status with a U-Visa. In her testimony, the woman admitted she had been molested as a small child, and during trial Garcia argued that she may have wanted Espinoza to pay for those crimes.

Espinoza is in his first term as a supervisor, having won his seat in 2016. Before that, he had been mayor of Livingston since 2010.