Inside a tense courtroom in Kew Gardens yesterday afternoon, Justice William Erlbaum was midway through explaining his verdict in the case of State Senator Hiram Monserrate when someone began screaming behind the wood-paneled wall to the left.
As Justice Erlbaum somberly parsed the testimony of Mr. Monserrate’s girlfriend, Karla Giraldo, and weighed it against the accounts of the hospital staff, the court officers near the wailing wall exchanged furtive glances. One walked over to a door marked Employees Only, leaned back against it, and pounded softly on it with the back of his fist. The screaming continued, punctuated with banging. The officer opened the door, and for a moment, the unfiltered voice came through even louder. Justice Erlbaum paused for a moment to look over. Mr. Monserrate, in a navy pinstriped suit, remained focused on the judge. Another officer walked over and discreetly put his ear to the wall. The sound stopped, the court officer re-emerged and the verdict continued.
Due to “the equivocal nature of what was going on in the apartment,” Justice Erlbaum said, “the court is required by law” to give him the defendant the benefit of the doubt, on all three felony counts that Mr. Monserrate had cut his girlfriend’s face with a glass.
The justice had hinted at such a verdict a few minutes earlier—before the yelling—when he reminded the gallery that “reasonable doubt can be based on evidence or lack of evidence,” but when he finally, conclusively stated the not guilty charge, a woman in the packed pews yelled out. “Yes!”
But there was still another, lesser charge: Count Six, reckless endangerment. Justice Erlbaum said the district attorney “took the high road” by calling Ms. Giraldo, and giving her a chance to tell her story, even though Ms. Giraldo had stated publicly that the incident was simply an accident. He called her testimony “an existential moment,” but the moment failed to sway him.
Here, the justice referenced the video of Mr. Monserrate “violent and very forcefully dragging” Ms. Giraldo from the apartment building, and the fact Mr. Monserrate took her to a hospital some distance away when he could have taken her to a closer hospital, or, as the justice pointed out, “911 could have readily been called.” Justice Erlbaum openly suspected this might be too keep it under the radar. “But it didn’t stay under the radar,” he said.
That Ms. Giraldo did not want a conviction mattered little. “Count Six belongs to the community,” he said and pronounced Mr. Monserrate guilty of reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor.
After a brief meeting at the bench, the attorneys again took their seats, and Justice Erlbaum waxed philosophical.
“Let nobody be especially righteous. We are all brothers and sisters,” he told the court. “We’re certainly not goving anyone a medal, but let nobody be self-righteous.” He quoted the Bible: “Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.”
After the verdict, the press huddled in rain slickers and a smattering of umbrellas at the base of the courthouse steps. When Mr. Monserrate emerged, the television cameramen started yelling at the still photographers. “Stills! Down!” There was such a crush that Mr. Monserrate could not make it to the podium. “There’s a podium,” he said meekly and the scrum moved with him.
Mr. Monserrate said that a “terrible accident occurred.”
“And I will forever live with that,” he said. As he translated his remarks into Spanish, a drop of rain dangled from the end of his nose.
His attorney, Joseph Tacopina, with a black athletic windbreaker over his dark suit, said Mr. Monserrate had been “vindicated,” and called the justice’s concluding statements “Solomonic.”
He declined to say whether Mr. Monserrate and Ms. Giraldo would have dinner together that night. “Today is the first step in the process of reconvening of that relationship,” Mr. Tacopina said. “Today is also a victory for Karla Giraldo.”