Taking a Second Look at an Ex-Officer’s 75-Year Sentence

If a contest were held for the most despised man in New York, Michael Pena would be a strong contender. “Despicable” doesn’t begin to describe what he did.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

Mr. Pena is the former police officer who finally admitted the other day that he raped a young schoolteacher at gunpoint last year, violating her in every way imaginable. But because of the intransigence of a few of its members, a state jury had deadlocked on rape charges, causing a mistrial in March. The jury did find Mr. Pena guilty of three counts of sexual assault.

On Thursday, with a new trial looming, this disgrace to the police shield belatedly acknowledged what was evident to most of the jurors the first time around: he raped the teacher. In exchange for his guilty plea, which spares the victim having to relive her ordeal in court yet again, the Manhattan district attorney agreed to a minimum sentence of 10 years.

In practical terms, there will be no additional prison time. Mr. Pena was already sentenced to 75 years to life behind bars. Justice Richard D. Carruthers of State Supreme Court in Manhattan ordered a minimum sentence of 25 years on each of the three assault counts — to be served consecutively. It means that the 28-year-old Mr. Pena will not be eligible for parole until he is 103, assuming he lives that long.

This brings us to a question for the courts and for New Yorkers in general: Is there a point at which an uncommonly long prison sentence strays past justice and stumbles into the realm of vengeance against a loathed defendant?

No question, many in this city couldn’t believe it when the holdout jurors forced the mistrial on rape. One of them, Lloyd E. Constantine, a prominent and politically connected lawyer, came under withering criticism for having failed to mention during jury selection that he was a friend and occasional tennis partner of the district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr. The district attorney’s office has no plan to take action against Mr. Constantine for what some might deem a grave sin of omission. But there is presumably nothing to stop the New York City Bar Association from looking into the matter.

When the mistrial was declared, the anguished victim broke down in the courtroom. Many New Yorkers were enraged. Tabloid editorialists seethed. In that atmosphere, Justice Carruthers imposed the 75-year sentence.

It is close to impossible to feel a gram of sympathy for this defendant. The woman he raped told the judge at the sentencing, “My life has been shattered.” Nonetheless, as Mr. Pena’s lawyer, Ephraim Savitt, wrote in an opinion article in The Daily News last month, “Life behind bars, which is essentially what he received, is typically the sentence given to career criminals, Al Qaeda terrorists and professional hit men.”

Mr. Savitt is appealing the sentence as “disproportionate and unjust.” Getting a sentence reduced on appeal is “relatively rare,” he acknowledged in an interview, but added, “I think that in this case, because of the disparate nature of the sentence, it could very well happen.”

We’ll see.

It is inarguable, though, that killers typically receive sentences not nearly as long as that given Mr. Pena. Look at examples from just the past month.

A Brooklyn woman, Carlotta Brett-Pierce, was sentenced to 32 years to life for having drugged and starved to death her 4-year-old daughter, Marchella Pierce. An elevator operator, Joseph Pabon, got 25 years to life for suffocating a cleaning woman, Eridania Rodriguez, and stuffing her body in the air duct of a Lower Manhattan office building. George Villanueva, found guilty of shoving Police Offcer Alain Schaberger to his death in Brooklyn, was sentenced to 28 ½ years to life. Alujah Cutts received 25 years to life for robbing and murdering a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, Felix Brinkmann.

So perhaps it is not out of bounds for the courts to take a second look at the Pena sentence. Not that he deserves anything but a long prison term. But 75 years? No murder was committed. The victim, while shockingly brutalized, is alive. Mr. Savitt raises a point worth considering when he says of this sentence that “the quest for proportionality has taken a dangerous detour.”


E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]


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