Queens State Senator Hiram Monserrate has only two claims to fame. First, he was one of the defecting Democrats who was responsible for shutting down the New York State Senate during the month of lunacy. Second, only a month after the then-City Councilman was elected to the Senate, he slashed his girlfriend’s face. Need I mention he was a New York City cop for 12 years before deciding to become a public servant?
Having decided that he would do better with Justice William Erlbaum than 12 peers, the latter being unlikely to ignore the videotape of him punching, grabbing and slashing Karla Giraldo to the tune of 20 stitches in his accident defense, Monserrate decided to go non-jury. He’s represented by my buddy Joe Tacopina, who has had great success defending cops. Of course, Joe Tac’s best work is before a jury, where his charm and good looks do him no harm.
Inexplicably, this was too much for the National Association of Women to take. Given Monserrate’s elevated profile from his Albany debacle, combined with his unkind treatment of his girlfriend Karla, whose story of assault later changed to an accident as Monserrate was bringing her a glass of water, he became the latest poster boy for misogynistic politician. So a plan was hatched.
The National Organization for Women in New York State is calling on the judge trying State Senator Hiram Monserrate on domestic violence charges to give him “the maximum sentence allowable by law.”
“Call or write the Honorable William M. Erlbaum,” the women’s organization told supporters in e-mail messages this week. “Send a message that violence against women must be stopped and perpetrators must be brought to justice.”
It included a template for sending a message to Justice Erlbaum that concluded: “I implore you to do the right thing by punishing Senator Monserrate, giving him the maximum sentence allowable by law. By doing so, you will be sending a very important message and that is that violence against women is a serious crime.”
“They’re trying to improperly persuade the fact finder,” Mr. Tacopina said in an interview. “It’s akin to writing a letter to a juror.”
Marcia Pappas, the president of the women’s organization in New York State, acknowledged the campaign to influence Justice Erlbaum, saying in an interview, “We’re imploring him to do the right thing.”Of course, if the judge already knows what to do, then why bother him with letters? What makes this scenario interesting is that the judge is the factfinder in a non-jury trial, yet fair game to public pressure. And Pappas’ statement notwithstanding, obviously the purpose of the campaign is to let the judge know that they will hang him out to dry if he makes the wrong call. At least they will try.
She said the campaign was nothing unusual for what she called “an activist organization” that has often written to family court judges in child custody cases.
“I’m sure the judge knows what he needs to do, so his position is not compromised,” Ms. Pappas said.
Tacopina is correct in comparing this push to punish to improperly reaching out to a juror in one sense, but a judge isn’t a juror, and there is no law I can think of prohibiting NOW from trying to influence his decision. On the other hand, Justice Erlbaum isn’t likely to shudder in fear at the thought of a bunch of letters from NOW members demanding the maximum punishment. It’s likely that he will remember the sequence of events, first guilt and only afterward punishment, in any event.
It would not surprise me if this NOW campaign backfires bigtime. Curiously, Monserrate has a tough case against him, with videotape of the assault to confront and only his girlfriend’s changed testimony to back up his story. Given that it’s fairly clear that her story changed to exculpate him, coupled with the tape, getting the judge to bite won’t be easy.
But there’s a tendency to get both annoyed at such overt political efforts to influence the outcome, and to bend the opposite way in order to avoid the impression that such efforts work (and thereby provide an incentive to the next group inclined to exert pressure) that may give Monserrate an edge where before he had none. While NOW may be impressed with its power and influence, it’s unlikely that Justice Erlbaum will share its self-image.
Ultimately, I suspect that the judge will do the right thing, meaning that he’ll try the case fairly and this background noise will fade away. But it’s amazing how this misbegotten scheme is the first, and possibly only, thing that has made Monserrate look even a little bit sympathetic. Before he was a pompous, arrogant State Senator who beat up and slashed his girlfriend. Now he’s the lone man fighting the hordes of NOW who are trying to improperly influence justice and deny him a fair trial.
If Monserrate has any gentility in him at all, he’ll send Pappas a thank you note. It would be the right thing to do.