Former NYPD officer Michael Pena was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison Monday after being convicted in March on three counts of predatory sexual assault. Pena, who allegedly kidnapped, raped, and sodomized a schoolteacher at gunpoint in an Inwood alleyway last summer while he was off duty, was notably not convicted of rape, however. At the time, there was much discussion in the local tabloids and elsewhere over what it takes to convict a cop of rape in New York City.
On its front page, under the headline "Rape-Cop Trial Fiasco," the Daily News ran another headline: "What Does a Woman Have to Do to Prove She Was Raped?" This headline tapped into the emotions of many New Yorkers after NYPD officers Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata were acquitted of the rape of a young East Village woman—the overall horror that cops might "get away with rape" while being convicted on lesser charges, like misconduct. Many were outraged that a jury would acquit or be unable to make a decision in favor of the victim when, in the overall public perception, the case seemed more black and white. Of course we're not privy to everything happening in the courtroom, and rarely is a rape case black and white—even though the Pena case seemed far more so than certain others of late. That's another reason people were so shocked by the lack of a rape conviction. And, as we pointed out at the time of the Daily News' "What Does a Woman Have to Do to Prove Rape" headline, there's a semantic distinction here as well: The layperson doesn't necessarily know the difference between a charge of rape or a charge of sexual assault, or what "predatory sexual assault" means. It's generally also assumed that the worse sort of sexual assault is rape.
However, the sentencing bears out that the sexual predatory assault charge has functioned as it should. Regardless of the "fiasco," which involved a hung jury on the question of rape (over, the Daily News wrote, a matter so incidental as the color of a nearby car being unknown by the victim), Pena has been properly sentenced for his crime, at least in so much as the justice system has the power to punish him. As Laura Italiano writes in The New York Post, "The sentence also means that the disgraced ex-cop, Michael Pena, 28, must serve at least 75 years before even seeing a parole board." (Pena's lawyer had asked for the minimum sentencing allowed by law, 10 years to life in prison.)
In March, as we were discussing the lack of a rape conviction in the case, the Manhattan DA's office explained that predatory sexual assault (a Class A felony) is a more serious charge than rape (a Class B), and, as DA spokeswoman Erin Duggan put it, "To say the prosecutor didn’t win this conviction was just wrong," even if "the vaginal attack is what was hung up in the jury." Each charge of predatory sexual assault, a term introduced in 2006 to allow prosecutors to charge offenses beyond rape, carries a sentence of 25 years to life. The 75 years to life given to Pena is the maximum sentence and should keep the man, who's now 28, behind bars for the rest of his days. So despite a hung jury on the matter of rape specifically—and the debate could go on as to why exactly this wasn't a conviction; we may never know the whole story—the charge of predatory sexual assault is doing exactly what it was meant to do.
According to a statement from the District Attorney's Office announcing the sentencing of Pena to the maximum penalty of 75 years-to-life in state prison following his convictions at trial of three counts of Predatory Sexual Assault, class A felonies, and three related charges:
“Today’s life sentence underscores the brutal nature of the defendant’s attack on an innocent young woman,” said District Attorney Vance. “I commend the victim for her bravery throughout this process, and I thank Judge Richard Carruthers for delivering an appropriate sentence that takes the viciousness of the defendant’s crime into account.”
In the victim's statement, she said, via The New York Post, "He used his weapon, and basically destroyed my life. That's it. Thank you." For his part, Pena claimed he'd been too drunk to properly control himself, and apologized, saying, "I'll always carry the shame and burden for my actions, for what I have done. For the rest of my life."
Seeing as his victim will carry the burden for what he's done for the rest of her life, that, plus a whole lot of time in prison, only seems fair.