San Francisco assistant district attorney Ben Mains in his office (Photo/Max Cherney)
San Francisco assistant district attorney Ben Mains in his office (Photo/Max Cherney)

This S.F. prosecutor is driven by Star Trek, Judaism and ‘sense of humanity’

Dressed in an immaculate, three-piece suit, San Francisco assistant district attorney Ben Mains strides across Courtroom 29 in the Hall of Justice, addressing the jury with the stentorian voice of an actor on the stage.

He delivers an impressive hour-plus-long argument, asserting that the defendant, seated in the courtroom, viciously attacked his wife. He displays PowerPoint slides and wields more than a few metaphors designed to tease out the arcane subtleties of California criminal law. As his argument reaches an emotional crescendo, he points to the defendant and asks the jurors to “end the cycle of violence.”

Several are visibly affected by the prosecutor’s words.

Mains, 33, has been with the D.A.’s office since January 2016, handling domestic violence cases as well as hate-crime prosecution. A member of the same synagogue his grandparents and great-grandparents belonged to — Reform Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco — Mains also has a background in theater, which he says serves him well in the courtroom.

“I come from a school of thought where everything you do in court, as you do on the stage, is pre-determined,” he says. “When I started in law school doing trial work, mock trial, I would write everything out longhand. I’d write my closing arguments sentence by sentence and it would be 20 pages long. And I would memorize it.”

These days Mains approaches his courtroom performances more like improv. He tries to adjust to each new situation and variable, which was apparent during this domestic violence case when he rebutted the defense lawyer’s closing arguments.

Awaiting the verdict back in his office, Mains sits, relaxed, at his desk. The walls are adorned with science fiction paraphernalia, including a poster from “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” — an original poster from the set-in-San Francisco film’s release in 1986.

“When I was a kid, my Star Trek and my Judaism were very interrelated,” Mains says. “My rabbi and my father and Captain Kirk and Captain Picard were all that same caliber of person that I wanted to be. [They] all had very similar value systems, about respecting somebody else’s culture but at the same time having a very clear sense about what is right and what is not right.”

My rabbi and my father and Captain Kirk and Captain Picard were all that same caliber of person that I wanted to be.

While many lawyers wear tailored suits, Mains dresses to the nines — when he was photographed for this story, he brought a colleague to act as style consultant, and at his wedding he wore a navy blue tailored tuxedo with a bow tie. Before the reception, he went back to his hotel room and swapped the bow tie out for another tie that looked better untied.

“He’s not just going to untie his bow tie,” says longtime friend Greg Taubman. “I think Ben has a sense of look and a sense of style that I don’t generally associate with non-artists. He knows what his hair is doing.”

In his time in San Francisco, Mains has already tried several high-profile cases, including one involving a mentally ill man who threatened to kill two women at a Pride parade. It’s a crime that potentially could merit a hate-crime enhancement during sentencing. But Mains notes that the defendant was off his medications when he made the threats. In this case, he felt the severity of the defendant’s condition didn’t warrant a felony conviction.

Together with the public defender, he worked to help the man via programming and treatment, and to Mains, this was a victory.

“It never would have happened anywhere, in any other county,” Mains says. “I had the ability to work with the public defender’s office and get him into programming to keep him out of prison and give him help.”

The opportunity to end the cycle is one of the reasons Mains finds satisfaction in prosecuting domestic violence cases and hate crimes. In both cases, he says, “you get to say here we are today, and we have an opportunity now. We have a choice here, we can repeat that cycle over and over again in perpetuity, or take agency over your life and set you on a path moving forward.”

The most frequent victims of hate crime in the city are gay men, but anti-Semitism cases do come up. In San Francisco, the majority of anti-Semitic hate crimes come in the form of graffiti or vandalism, according to SFPD Sgt. Peter Shields, who works closely with Mains to determine which cases should be pursued. Without eyewitnesses or video evidence, such crimes are difficult to prove in court, Shields notes.

Much like many in the public spotlight, Mains has had his brush with controversy. In June, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi filed a complaint with the state bar and later sent a letter to the state attorney general’s office alleging that Mains withheld evidence from defense attorneys, per several media reports. Under normal circumstances, such complaints are confidential until the state bar elects to file form charges, which has not occurred in Mains’ case. Mains declined to comment on the allegations.

Prior to his San Francisco posting, Mains served as a prosecutor in Contra Costa County, and Riverside County before that. But his ties to San Francisco and the city’s Jewish community predate the earthquake and fire of 1906.

“My family has been in San Francisco since the 1880s,” he says. “We were members of Sherith Israel since it was founded. My grandfather and my uncle were bar mitzvahed there. It’s been part of my family forever.”

Mains and his wife joined after the couple moved back to the Bay Area after college; Amy Mains sits on the board.

“Ben showed up because of his wife, Amy, who studied for her conversion,” says Sherith Israel emeritus rabbi Larry Raphael. “To a certain extent, Ben and Amy made this conscious adult choice to participate in Judaism. He attended the classes with Amy, and I think that’s part of what makes him tick.”

Mains says that he practices his own brand of Judaism, in large part based on his experiences at Sherith Israel. “One of my mentors, who has been at the shul for a million years, is an atheist,” Mains says. “For him, it’s more than just being a religious Jew. That really spoke to me. There’s the religious aspect, there’s the shared history, there’s the cultural aspect.”

Mains and his wife visited Israel on a Birthright trip several years ago, but he says he didn’t identify with how Israelis practice Judaism. “It reinforced our own Jewish identities, but we didn’t have any sense that we were ‘coming home’ like a lot of the other folks on the trip did.”

Raphael doesn’t think that Mains’ Judaism was responsible in and of itself for his decision to become a public servant, but it is an inescapable part of his psychology.

“It’s who he is,” the rabbi says. “Ben has a burning desire in the realm of social justice.”

Raphael’s observation is shared by one of Mains’ professional mentors at the DA’s office, attorney Kulvinder Singh.

Ben has a burning desire in the realm of social justice.

“I really saw that spark in him,” she says. “I think he has a genuine love of public service. He has such a sense of humanity. He is meant to be a healer, not in a medical sense, but in the emotional sense. That is really what drives Ben as a human being.”

Mains does not fit many stereotypes of a prosecutor: severe, crusading, conservative, to name a few. For starters, he received his undergraduate degree from Princeton University in drama and English, with a focus on theater. There, he joined the Triangle Club, the oldest collegiate musical comedy review in the country, which features an all-male kick-line drag show.

“Even in the silliest of theater, he has always been a man of the greatest integrity,” says his friend, Taubman, who is a theater director and co-founder of FORGE, a boutique arts consultancy based in New York. “In terms of what to include in a show, how to approach a character — it came from a place of strong values, and passion.”

Taubman, who met Mains at the Triangle a decade ago, sees his friend’s work as a prosecutor as a natural extension of his stagecraft.

“The craft work of an actor and craft work as a lawyer have a great deal in common,” Taubman says. “It’s an incredible gift of empathy, the way he is able to get in touch with what a character is dealing with in a moment and resonate with it. It’s an incredible asset in the courtroom, I know from hearing about his cases that he feels very deeply.”

Shields says that’s one of the things that sets Mains apart “His passion is so strong, his passion about human rights. It’s not just about halting crime and people doing bad things. He really cares about people.”

But Mains is still a lawyer, and has the competitive spirit that goes with the terrain. “Ben likes to win,” Taubman says. “Just the win itself, he gets pleasure in it. It’s one of the reasons why he’s a good attorney.”

Mains indeed got his victory in the domestic violence case. About 24 hours after he delivered his closing argument, the jury returned a verdict: guilty on all four counts, likely halting or at least derailing the cycle of violence in the victim’s life. The convicted man will spend up to seven years inside the California prison system.

“I was attracted to criminal law because it really matters,” Mains says. “It’s not just about money. It affects people’s lives.”

Updated on Sept. 19 to reflect new information.

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.