State Senator Hiram Monserrate was acquitted of the most serious charges against him today, but was found guilty of misdemeanor assault of his girlfriend -- a conviction which could carry jail-time but does not automatically mean he will lose his senate seat.
The Queens politician was found not guilty of two felony charges of assault and one other misdemeanor charge stemming from the December incident that left his girlfriend with 20 stitches to her face following a night of drinking and arguing. A conviction on those charges would have effectively ended his senate career
"A terrible accident happened to my girlfriend Carla Giraldo -- a person that I love," a vindicated Monserrate said as he walked out of the courtroom a free man. "And I will always live with that. There are no winners. This has been a humbling experience. Yes. I was acquitted of a intentional act."
Defense attorney Joseph Tacopina said Monserrate would never spend a moment in jail on the misdemeanor charge and celebrated the verdict as a victory, predicting that Monserrate would keep his senate seat.
"Obviously we're thrilled, said Tacopina. "The senator was vindicated. Because there were no intentional acts he committed that night."
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown saw things a different way.
"Today's decision holds a batterer accountable for his actions," said Brown, who added, "I don't think he should be thrilled at all."
In the courtroom, Judge William Erlbaum faulted Monserrate, 42, for not taking his girlfriend Karla Giraldo to a closer hospital to treat the gash on her face and for dragging her -- as seen on the video shown at trial. The judge says she suffered "substantial pain."
After initial acquittals somebody in the middle rows of the gallery exclaimed "Yes!" but when the last not guilty verdict was announced, a total silence fell over the largest room in Queens Supreme Court.
Erlbaum was the sole person to determine Monserrate's fate because Tacopina opted for a bench trial -- a bold legal tactic that aimed to ensure that the case's raw emotion that could sway a jury to make decision would be taken out of verdict calculation. A tactic that seemed to have paid off for the defense.
The trial combined domestic violence, sex, politics and jealousy. The senator was accused of flipping into a jealous and violent state after finding another man's business card in girlfriend Karla Giraldo's purse.
Defense attorneys loosely implied the district attorney pursued the case because of political enmity lingering from the senator's criticism of the prosecution of police officers acquitted last year of shooting an unarmed Sean Bell.
Monserrate faced up to seven years in prison and the loss of his Senate seat if convicted of a felony in a dramatic trial that included blockbuster surveillance video, heated exchanges between witnesses and lawyers, and Monserrate's girlfriend breaking down on the stand in the midst of her defense of the man who authorities say slashed her face in fit of rage.
Monserrate, a former NYPD cop and City Councilman, pleaded not guilty, saying the incident at his Queens apartment that left Giraldo in need of at least 20 stitches was an accident. Senator Monserrate's version is that he merely tripped when bringing his girlfriend a glass of water in a dark room and that the glass broke and struck her in the face.
The problem for prosecutors was that girlfriend Giraldo said it was an accident too. And despite apartment surveillance video that showed an agitated Monserrate leading Giraldo forcefully out of their Jackson Heights, Queens building and neighbors who described a night of fighting between the couple, only Monserrate and Giraldo were behind the closed doors where and when her pretty face was gashed.
Lead prosecutor Scott Kessler said Giraldo changed her story only after she learned he was going to be arrested. The wound around her left eye required up to 40 stitches to close, according to a doctor's testimony. And a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center testified that Giraldo originally said Monserrate attacked her that night.
Monserrate took Giraldo, bleeding and hysterical, to a hospital and stayed there with her as she received treatment, though people recognized him and made assumptions about what had happened, defense attorney Joseph Tacopina said.
"They didn't go see a fixer," Tacopina said in his closing arguments. "He didn't call for one of his aides... If he were not 'Senator' Monserrate, would these actions even be questioned?"
Tacopina, using a high-tech slideshow, dissected frame-by-frame the grainy surveillance footage pivotal to the prosecution's argument to offer an alternative suggestion: Monserrate used force, not violence, to get Giraldo out of the building and to a hospital. She didn't want to go because she was vain and worried about what her face would look like if it was touched by anyone other than her plastic surgeon. "That is not the action of an abuser," Tacopina said.
The surveillance footage shows Monserrate grabbing Giraldo and shoving her outside as she latches onto door frames and stairwell railings, screaming and crying.
Giraldo testified earlier in the case through a translator and gave a rambling and often contradictory account of what happened. Assistant District Attorney Kessler sought to consider her a hostile witness, but the judge refused. In his own summation, Kessler pointed derisively to the location of the claimed accidental injury.
"He just happens to accidentally fall and hit her in the eye at exactly the spot where he'd hit her if he was doing it intentionally??" the prosecutor thundered. "What are the odds of that??!"
The prosecutor also asked Judge Erlbaum to consider why, if it was an accident, there was no call to 911 and why Sen. Monserrate took the time to change out of his own bloody shirt before going to the hospital.
"Jackie Kennedy didn't change the bloody dress she was wearing in Dallas in 1963 when she went with President Kennedy to the hospital," Kessler added, "because she wasn't feeling guilty about being responsible for the crime that put him there."
Meanwhile, State Senate Majority Leader John Sampson said that Albany leaders are considering action against Monserrate.
"Accusations against public officials are of the utmost concern to everyone in a just and civil society and I take them very seriously," said Sampson. "The leaders of our conference are discussing the potential for further disciplinary action by the Senate and will comment further once a determination has been reached."
State Senator Ruben Diaz, who was one of the "Four Amigos" that included Sens. Monserrate, Pedro Espada, Jr, and Carl Kruger, was at the trial and crowed outside the courtroom afterward, "Justice was served in every way!"
After the trial, Diaz also said that Giraldo and Monserrate were planning to get married, and he, a licensed minister, would preside over the nuptials.
Of course, Giraldo would first have to petition the judge to drop the order of protection for her that is out against Hiram.