Yesterday, after seven days of deliberations and a six-week trial, a jury found NYPD officers Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata not guilty of the rape of an intoxicated woman they helped one night in December of 2008. Unsurprisingly, this has been an extremely high profile case in New York City, and one I had the opportunity to sit in on. After seeing the cross-examinations and following the case for the last few weeks, I’m upset with the way the verdict came out and what it says about police misconduct.
After receiving a 911 call from a taxi cab driver transporting a drunken woman home and initially helping the drunken woman into her apartment, the officers were captured by surveillance cameras as they re-entered the woman’s East Village building three times, even placing a phony 911 call from a pay phone to provide them with a cause to return. Mata waited outside while Moreno, 43, went into the woman’s apartment. This is where recollections differ.
The woman, who was drinking heavily at a Brooklyn bar while celebrating a job promotion, conceded that she had blacked out on many details of the evening. Still, she testified to vivid memories of hearing police radios crackling and Velcro tearing open, of feeling her tights being rolled down, and then of being penetrated as she lay dazed, face down on her bed.
Moreno maintained that he developed a rapport with the woman due to his own history as an alcoholic when she revealed that her friends were mad at her because she drank too much. They flirted, he sang Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” to her and she came onto him, wearing nothing but a bra, he said. He testified that he kissed the woman on the forehead and snuggled with her in her bed while she was half-undressed, but he maintained that they did not have sex.
In all this, the officers were found guilty of “official misconduct.”
Admittedly, the prosecution had no DNA evidence to use against Moreno, and the recollections from someone so drunk are suspect — she initially claimed she may have been raped but during the trial contested that she was certain. What the prosecution did have, however, was a recorded conversation between the woman and Moreno days after the encounter on the street outside of his precinct where, despite assuring her many, many times that they never had sex, Moreno twice admitted to using a condom.
The acquittal has been met with anger and disbelief in New York City, a city with a long history of police brutality and police-civilian tension. A protest has already been planned for Friday at the criminal courts in downtown Manhattan and individuals everywhere are asking the same question: When will police be held accountable for their actions in the same way that “civilians” are?
In my personal and work circle, the acquittal was met with varied reactions, from anger to a flippant “what’d you expect”-attitude. It seems to me that police “getting away” with acts that the layman would probably not is what we as a population have come to expect, just as we expect celebrities and high net-worth individuals to get out of charges with little to no punishment.
It’s no surprise to anyone that this phenomenon happens. My issue, however, is the way in which this type of discrimination is perpetuated within the very structure of the legal system. Take, for instance, the fact that former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was granted bail by a Manhattan criminal court to the tune of $1,000,000 and is now spending his house arrest in a plush Tribeca townhouse worth $13 million. The fact that a man accused of raping a woman is allowed to spend his time during his trial in his cushioned abode because he is able to afford the astronomical bail is cringe-worthy. This is especially so when considering the amount, for instance, of clients of mine in Harlem accused of petty crimes and small drug offenses who spend the weeks and months of their case’s duration at Rikers Island because they are unable to afford the bail that’s often under $2500.
It is important to fight the discrimination and unjust practices that individuals involved in the criminal justice process commit. What is also important to look at, however, are the ways in which injustice is perpetuated through the structural mechanisms and written practices of the criminal justice system. In order for us to expect judges, juries, and attorneys to act in the true interest of justice, we must also insist that the criminal justice system itself be purged of the structural inequalities that allow high-profile individuals to be presented with a different face of justice than the rest of us.
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