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Trial begins in 2016 stabbing of construction worker

A woman accused of fatally stabbing a construction worker in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood in 2016 and attempting to kill a Tenderloin parking lot attendant after they refused to let her use portable restrooms will testify that she was attacked first in both cases, her attorney told jurors Wednesday.

Jurors heard opening statements Wednesday in the trial of Lizette Cauich, 25, and her co-defendant Oscar Mendez, 44, a homeless couple from Los Angeles who are charged in the death of Mitzi Campbell on June 10, 2016, and in a stabbing that nearly killed parking lot attendant Amar Dahmi on May 29, 2016.

The attack on Campbell, a 58-year-old San Francisco resident who worked as a flagger controlling traffic at a construction site on Shipley Street, was largely captured on surveillance video. Campbell was escorting Cauich out of the alley after she had asked to use a portable restroom on the site and been refused, according to prosecutor Andrew Ganz.

The video, which Ganz played in court Wednesday, shows Cauich, a petite woman, swinging wildly at the larger Campbell at the entrance to the alley and striking her several times in the torso. She then rolls Campbell over and stands over her, going through her pockets until she is confronted by two other construction workers.

The construction workers struggled with Cauich, who was still armed with a knife, over her bicycle as she attempted to leave the scene.

She was ultimately arrested nearby at Fifth and Folsom streets a short time later with Mendez, who is charged as an accessory after the fact in Campbell’s death for attempting to help her get away.

Police ultimately recovered five knives from the couple, one of which Mendez had tried to hide on the wheel of a car before his arrest.

After their arrest, they were linked to the previous attack at a parking lot at Taylor and Eddy streets.

Ganz said:

“It didn’t take much to connect the incidents. … You had two situations where a female wanted to use the ‘porta potty,’ was denied and then stabbed people.”

Dahmi was seriously injured in that attack, which involved a woman and two men, one of whom has never been identified, but was able to escape and get help at the nearby Hotel Nikko.

Ganz said:

“The evidence in the case will show that these violent attacks started specifically because of Ms. Cauich. … They started because of her anger, her temper and because when she was told no, she couldn’t take it.”

However, Deputy Public Defender Eric Quandt, who represents Cauich, said his client would testify during the trial that both Campbell and Dahmi attacked her first.

In the case of Campbell, Quandt said she had told Cauich to get out of the alley, accused her of committing crimes in the area and threatened to “kick her ass.” The video shows Campbell pulling Cauich’s hair during the struggle that led to the stabbing, he said.

In the case of Dahmi, Quandt said he had used a metal chair on Cauich in a way that left her feeling like she had been attacked, prompting her to run to Mendez for help.

He acknowledged that the subsequent attack qualified as an assault, but said she never intended to kill Dahmi and did not land any of the most serious blows.

Quandt told jurors that Cauich’s intense reactions in both attacks were colored by a lifetime of abuse and trauma, starting with physical and sexual abuse when she was a child and leading right up to abuse by partners including Mendez.

She was first diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder when she was 15 and became a teenage runaway, moving in and out of the foster system, he said.

Quandt said Cauich felt remorse over Campbell’s death.

“When she’s not under threat she’s not this crazy person,” Quandt said, describing her as a “creative, funny, hopeful young woman” who volunteered to help repair bikes and had tried to earn her GED.

Quandt said:

“But when she’s under threat she’s in fight or flight mode.”

Cauich, a petite woman with delicate features who wore her hair pulled back tightly in a braid, listened intently in court Wednesday and reacted emotionally, showing distress and even tearing up at some points.

She and Mendez, a slim man with short graying hair and glasses, appeared to be at odds, with Mendez’s attorney John Kaman making it clear he was willing to let Cauich take the fall alone.

Kaman said Mendez was not even an accessory to Campbell’s murder because he didn’t know anyone had been killed. He had been waiting for Cauich to return, and then found her struggling over her bicycle with the construction workers and tried to get her to leave the area, without realizing what had actually happened.

In the attack on Dahmi, Kaman said the evidence showing Mendez was even there is weak.

Dahmi himself failed to identify Mendez as one of his attackers in the days after the incident and only identified him in court six months later after seeing him on television and in the courtroom dressed in jail clothes.

A video of three suspects walking together does not show the face of the man prosecutors allege is Mendez.

Kaman said:

“It’s our position that Mr. Mendez was not even present at the time Mr. Dahmi was stabbed.”

Kaman said Cauich has told several different stories about that attack to police, and none of them involved Mendez. In one of them, Mendez was across the street getting a burrito.

Kaman also denied Quandt’s statements that Mendez had abused Cauich. He said the pair had drunk a lot, done methamphetamine together and had a tumultuous relationship, but said any violence was mutual, with Cauich attacking Mendez with knives at least once.

Testimony in the trial was expected to continue Wednesday afternoon.

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