NEW YORK -- A former New York City police officer convicted of assaulting a young teacher as she waited for a ride to school was sentenced Monday to 75 years to life in prison. The lack of a rape conviction in the case had drawn criticism from some victims' rights advocates.
Michael Pena, 28, was convicted in March of predatory sexual assault and criminal sexual assault, but the jury deadlocked on rape charges, resulting in a partial mistrial. Jurors described increasingly contentious deliberations as they argued over the verdict for five days, and the Daily News reported that the victim's inability to remember the color of a car parked near the site of the incident was used by some to scuttle a rape conviction.
During the closely watched trial, the victim described being forced at gunpoint to go with Pena down an alley as she waited on a Manhattan street for a colleague to take her to her first day teaching. Witnesses included a resident of a nearby building who heard the woman screaming “no” and who told a 911 operator that she saw “sex going on that is not consensual.”
"The perpetrator has a gun ... I just saw it from the window," the witness said in the 911 call, which was played for jurors. A security camera earlier had captured Pena following the victim down the sidewalk.
The woman tearfully insisted she had been raped, despite defense attorney Ephraim Savitt's attempts to punch holes in her version of events.
"In my mind, he raped me," she said while being cross-examined by Savitt. Savitt conceded that Pena had assaulted the woman but said it did not amount to rape. "The truth is that there was a sexual assault. The truth is that he did something that was entirely improper ... and what he did is unforgivable and it should not be condoned. But by the same token he did not rape this woman," Savitt said.
The jury's decision led one state lawmaker, Aravella Simotas of Queens, to introduce legislation that would broaden the definition of rape “to prevent such a miscarriage of justice from happening again.”
Pena, who had been on the police force since 2008, was fired after his conviction. Witnesses who testified in his defense included his fiancee, who said she stood by Pena despite the allegations that he was drunk and out looking for sex in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 19, 2011, when he came upon the young teacher.
The victim, now 25, spoke briefly before Judge Richard Carruthers announced the sentence, telling Carruthers: "He used his weapon and basically destroyed my life."
Pena also was given the opportunity to speak and appealed for a lighter sentence, apologizing to the victim and saying he would "always carry the shame and burden" of what he had done.