By Jeremy Walsh
The saga of state Sen. Hiram Monserrate’s (D-East Elmhurst) assault case is out of the courtroom for the time being, but although the first-term legislator avoided any jail time on his misdemeanor conviction for recklessly injuring his girlfriend while dragging her out of his apartment building, he still faces censure from his Senate colleagues and the judgment of his constituents.
Queens Supreme Court Judge William Erlbaum Friday sentenced Monserrate to three years’ probation, 250 hours community service, a $1,000 fine and a 52-week counseling program. The misdemeanor assault charge carried a maximum of one year in jail. Monserrate was acquitted of felony assault based on allegations he slashed girlfriend Karla Giraldo’s face with a broken glass during an argument in his Jackson Heights apartment over another man’s police union card he found in her purse.
Erlbaum also upheld a five-year order of protection keeping Monserrate from Giraldo that he said he would reconsider in the “foreseeable future” once Monserrate provided evidence he was in therapy.
“A promise alone that Mr. Monserrate will respect [Giraldo’s] autonomy is a far cry from remediating the green-eyed monster of jealousy,” Erlbaum told the court.
A contrite Monserrate choked up when talking to the judge before the sentence was handed down.
“I’m here because of my own actions and I accept full responsibility,” he said, pledging to treat Giraldo better. “She deserves nothing but good and I am committed to giving her nothing but good. I will not let her down, I will not let this court down.”
Monserrate appeared far more poised after the sentence when he spoke with reporters outside the courthouse.
“There was a conviction here for a reckless, unintentional misdemeanor,” he said. “The court’s decision speaks for itself, and we are appealing that decision.”
The sentencing unfolded over four hours as each side in the case took its rhetorical swings.
Giraldo’s attorney, Glen Marshall, asked to speak on his client’s behalf, but Erlbaum turned him down. When Marshall said Giraldo wanted to address Erlbaum in her native Spanish, Erlbaum, remembering the defense’s contention that a Spanish-speaking emergency room doctor did not understand Giraldo, had a ready reply.
“Will our Spanish interpreters do, or will we have to fly someone up from Ecuador?” he said.
In her statement, Giraldo repeated that the incident was an accident.
“I want to be with him and I want to continue my usual life with him,” she said through a court-appointed interpreter. “We want to get married.”
Erlbaum spent half an hour interrogating Giraldo, rebutting her contention that hospital staff only called police because they identified Monserrate as a public official.
“[They received] a bleeding woman, brought to the most remote hospital in the county, saying this was not an accident,” he said. “Do you think they cared one whit whether he was a sweeper or the president?”
Prosecutor Scott Kessler used his speaking time to portray Monserrate as being more concerned with his career than Giraldo’s well-being.
“I don’t believe Mr. Monserrate understands the seriousness of what he has done,” Kessler said. “His idea is this is all political retribution.”
Monserrate and his previous attorney, Irving Siedbaum, had suggested that the case was being prosecuted because Queens District Attorney Richard Brown had a grudge against him. In a letter to Erlbaum, Brown dismissed the suggestion as “scurrilous.”
But Erlbaum tore into the prosecutors’ contention that they had treated the case like any other domestic violence case. Erlbaum noted that the DA’s office had recommended probation for nine other domestic violence cases, some for defendants with lengthy criminal records and, in one case, for a homicide.
Kessler argued that Monserrate was less than forthcoming in his probation report, which led to increased scrutiny and the request for the stiffer penalty, but Erlbaum was unconvinced.
“He doesn’t get a break, he doesn’t get a handout,” the judge said. “He’s not entitled to better rights than anybody else, but he’s not entitled to worse rights either.”
While Erlbaum said his sentence reflected a desire for the “appearance of fairness,” it clearly displeased many who had followed the case.
DA Brown called the court-mandated counseling “not only appropriate but necessary,” but said he was “somewhat disappointed” at the lack of jail time. “In our opinion, the acts were so egregious in this case that they justified the imposition of the jail term.”
The New York chapter of the National Organization for Women lashed out at Erlbaum, suggesting that he “join Monserrate in that 52-week treatment program” for badgering Giraldo.
“Apparently Justice William M. Erlbaum lacked the fortitude to put Monserrate away for a year,” NOW-NY President Marcia Pappas said in a prepared statement. “Now it’s up to the Special Senate Committee, chaired by Sen. Eric Schneiderman, to oust this perpetrator of domestic violence. It will take courage by the members of the Special Committee to do the right thing.”
Monserrate’s opponent in the 2010 Democratic primary, state Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights), also lamented the sentence.
“Violence against women is unacceptable, and I believe Hiram Monserrate should have been given jail time for his heinous assault against his girlfriend last year,” Peralta said.
Monserrate pledged to return to work and represent his constituents in Albany, but he faces further scrutiny from his fellow senators.
Present at the sentencing were lawyers for state Senate Democrats and Republicans, both trying to get grand jury minutes and related materials for the committee the chamber has formed to determine whether to censure Monserrate.
“The select committee is very interested in what happened during those 37 minutes,” attorney Daniel Alonso said, referring to the time it took Monserrate to drive Giraldo to Long Island Jewish Hospital. “It’s an issue that wasn’t fully explored during the trial.”
Erlbaum agreed to release Giraldo’s grand jury testimony, but withheld any other information, asking the attorneys to submit specific requests. He also cautioned the committee to gauge their actions carefully.
“Part of leadership is not being a cipher and standing up to forces and not being so fast to destroy someone’s career,” he said.
Attorneys Joseph Tacopina and Chad Siegel also offered a glimpse of the potential appeal of Monserrate’s conviction. At the opening of the sentencing, Siegel moved to dismiss the case based on the fact that during the struggle outside his apartment, Monserrate never touched Giraldo’s left arm, where doctors later observed a bruise. Giraldo appears to have been pressed against a staircase and a door frame while struggling with Monserrate in the surveillance footage shown during the trial.
“That fact also undercuts the notion that Ms. Giraldo experienced ‘substantial pain,’” Siegel said.
Erlbaum, clearly displeased that the motion had not been submitted in writing before the day of sentencing, said the conviction was based on more than which arm Monserrate held.
“You are parsing it and putting one little component in a bracket,” he said. “This is not going to be based on a single nanosecond of an incident that lasted nearly an hour.”
Tacopina said he planned to file a motion to appeal the verdict Friday.
Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.