Two police officers were acquitted Thursday of raping a drunken woman they'd been called to help, with a jury convicting them only of misdemeanor official misconduct charges in a case that pitted a stunning claim of police abuse against the officers' insistence that it simply didn't happen.
Looking exhausted but relieved as they left court, Officers Franklin Mata and Kenneth Moreno said they felt vindicated by the verdict, though it could send them to jail and immediately got them fired. Moreno called it both "a lesson and a win."
"My intentions were, from the beginning, just to help her," Moreno said. He was accused of raping the woman, with Mata serving as a lookout; the two had returned to her apartment three times after an initial call to help her get home. Moreno, 43, said he did so to check on her, at her request, and to counsel her about drinking.
"I made a judgment call ... and I paid for it," he said.
Mata, 29, said he had "been innocent from day one. I'm glad everybody sees that now."
Jurors, who left court without speaking to reporters, deliberated for about six days before returning the verdict. They found each officer guilty of three official misconduct charges for returning to the woman's apartment without telling dispatchers or superiors where they were. They face possible sentences from no jail time to a total of two years behind bars at their sentencing, set for June 28.
The police department dismissed them within hours after the verdict; they had been suspended when indicted in 2009. At the time, Commissioner Raymond Kelly had called the allegations "disgraceful" and "a shocking aberration" in the department's work. Moreno's lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, had said Thursday before their firing that the two didn't expect to resume police work.
Besides the rape acquittal, they were acquitted of other charges including burglary and falsifying business records.
Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a statement that prosecutors "respect the jury's verdict, which acknowledges that the defendants' actions that night not only violated the law, they violated the victim's rights, and the public's trust."
The verdict puzzled and outraged some observers, including women's advocates. Several activists organize a protest outside the courthouse for Friday evening, while members of the City Council Women's Caucus and the National Organization for Women planned a news conference Friday afternoon on the City Hall steps.
"Never mind professional behavior, and they're held to higher standard because they're police officers -- to hear some of the facts in this case that they (the officers) put forward" was disturbing, Councilwoman Rosie Mendez said.
During the trial, prosecutors told a stark story of police misconduct and a perverse abuse of power. The officers acknowledged a number of missteps -- including Moreno making a bogus 911 call about a sleeping vagrant as an excuse to return to her building -- but said that they weren't crimes and that the rape allegation was a product of the woman's muddled memory.
"I thought she made the whole thing up," Moreno said Thursday, adding later that "she was mistaken or confused."
The officers were called to help the woman get out of a taxi on Dec. 7, 2008. A fashion product developer who's now 29, the woman had gotten very drunk while out with friends celebrating her impending promotion and move to California.
The woman testified that she passed out and awoke to being raped in her apartment. Moreno told jurors that he lay alongside her in her bed for a while but that they didn't have sex. Mata said he was napping in the living room while the others were in the bedroom.
While she acknowledged during days of testimony that her memory of the night was spotty, she said that she acutely remembered the rape, and that other vivid snippets -- police radio chatter, flashlights, the same man's voice urging her to drink water in her bathroom and later asking her if she wanted him to stay in her bedroom -- made her certain that her attacker was an officer.
"I couldn't believe that two officers who had been called to help me had, instead, raped me," said the woman, who has sued the city seeking $57 million over the incident. Her lawyer didn't immediately return a call Thursday.
After consulting prosecutors, she secretly recorded a conversation with Moreno a few days later. He alternately denied they had sex and seemed to admit it, particularly by saying twice that he'd used a condom when she asked him.
Moreno told jurors he was just "telling her what she wanted to hear" because she had suggested she'd go into the stationhouse where he worked and make a scene. He has been a police officer for about 20 years.
No DNA evidence was collected in the case, and experts debated whether an internal mark found during an examination of the woman could be interpreted as a sign of rape.
Moreno said he was only trying to console and counsel the woman about drinking during his series of visits, as he shared his own struggle with alcoholism some years before, killed a cockroach in her bathroom, made plans to have breakfast with her and sang to her a verse of Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer."
On the last visit, Moreno said, he suddenly found himself fending off drunken advances from the woman.
"I told her, 'There's another time for this. Not tonight.' ... I kind of had her by the shoulders, and I said, 'We're not doing this,'" he told jurors.
But, he said, he wound up in her bed after she fell and got stuck between her bed and a wall and needed to be freed. He said he stayed there "snuggling" with her for a time, out of sympathy, but kept his uniform on and didn't have sex with her.
Mata, a police officer for about five years, acknowledged during his testimony that he couldn't be sure what had happened between the two while he was snoozing on the woman's sofa. But he said he didn't believe Moreno had raped the woman because "Ken wouldn't do something like that."
He was charged with rape under state legal principles that hold an alleged accessory as responsible for a crime as the main defendant.
Asked whether the official misconduct conviction was a disappointment, Mata lawyer Edward Mandery said, "We'll deal with it."