A prominent women's organization is asking the judge presiding over Hiram Monserrate's domestic-violence case to punish the state senator to the fullest extent of the law – a move that's got his lawyers in a tizzy, according to a published report.
Monserrate's trial on assault charges for allegedly slashing his girlfriend's face on Dec. 19 begins Monday in State Supreme Court in Queens. The off-again on-again Senate Democrat pleaded not guilty and, in a risky gambit, opted for bench trial, allowing a single judge to determine his fate.
Now the National Organization for Women in New York State is attempting to sway that judge.
"Call or write the Honorable William M. Erlbaum," the women’s group urged supporters in e-mail messages this week, reports The New York Times. "Send a message that violence against women must be stopped and perpetrators must be brought to justice."
The 42-year-old Monserrate faces three counts each of felony assault and misdemeanor assault for allegedly slashing the face of his girlfriend, Karla Giraldo, 30, with a broken glass after he discovered another man's card in her purse. Giraldo, who needed 20 stitches, has refused to cooperate with investigators.
The embattled senator's lawyers are furious the women's group is reaching out to the judge. It was Monserrate's choice to have his case determined by a judge in a bench trial rather than a 12-member jury of his peers.
The e-mail even included a template for writing to Erlbaum that ended: "I implore you to do the right thing by punishing Sen. 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."
Both Monserrate and Giraldo have maintained he cut her face accidentally when he tripped while bringing her a glass of water. But evidence of what looked like an argument between the two was caught on surveillance video at Monserrate's Queens apartment – and Giraldo changed her story a few times when initially speaking to hospital employees.
Last week, Monserrate rejected a plea bargain that would've allowed him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor reckless assault charge, which would have let him keep his Senate seat and stay out of jail. If convicted of the more serious felony assault charges, Monserrate faces up to seven years in prison. And the women's group is lobbying to ensure that happens.
Monserrate's lead lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, heard about the women's group's campaign from one of his client's constituents. Tacopina called the effort "inappropriate, improper and offensive" and vowed to proffer a legal objection when the trial begins Monday.
"They're trying to improperly persuade the fact finder," Tacopina told the Times. "It's akin to writing a letter to a juror."
Marcia Pappas, president of the women's group, acknowledges her organization is acting in an advocacy role. She said the campaign, albeit involving an ongoing court case, is nothing out of the ordinary for an "activist organization" that has often written to judges presiding over child custody cases, reports the Times.
Erlbaum told the paper through a clerk that it wouldn't be appropriate to comment on the situation.
While the matter may be "intriguing," state Office of Court Administration spokesman David Bookstaver said contacting a judge isn't the same as reaching out to a jury under the law. Judges running bench trial would abide by the same advice they would give to jurors, which is to disregard outside factors and take into account only the evidence in front of them, he told the Times.
"While it is improper for anyone to contact a sitting juror, judges are in fact public officials with public addresses," Bookstaver said. "There is no way to prevent members of the public or concerned groups from attempting to contact them."
The women's group also tried to get the Senate to oust Monserrate, a Democrat whose defection to the Republicans brought state politics to a halt for more than a month.