Two police officers' rape trial was abruptly postponed Monday after prosecutors said they planned to take the unusual step of taking the case back to a grand jury on the verge of trying it. A defense lawyer called the development a boon to the officers, but prosecutors suggested it might not be.
Jury selection had been set to begin Monday for the trial of officers Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata, both facing rape and other charges stemming from a December 2008 encounter with a woman after being called to help her get home. Moreno is accused of raping the drunken, semiconscious woman in her Manhattan apartment while Mata acted as a lookout. They deny the allegations.
But instead of starting to choose jurors for the trial, Manhattan assistant district attorney Randolph Clarke asked the judge for time to return to the grand jury _ the body that reviews prosecutors' evidence in the early stages of a case and decides what charges, if any, are warranted but doesn't decide whether a defendant is guilty of them.
While neither side would detail what had spurred prosecutors to revisit an indictment obtained about two years ago, Moreno lawyer Joseph Tacopina said it concerned overlooked evidence that bolstered the officers' claims of innocence.
"It's a piece of evidence that very much supports our theory of the case ... that nothing untoward or illegal happened," he said, calling the evidence "very favorable to the defense."
The district attorney's office said that was a mischaracterization but declined to elaborate.
State Supreme Court Justice Gregory Carro noted the request came late in the game. "I'm not sure why it took this long to figure this out," he said, but he agreed to put the case on hold until March 21.
Mata and Moreno responded after a taxi driver called police to say that the 27-year-old woman, who had spent an evening out with friends, was too drunk to get out of his cab. The Associated Press generally does not name people who report being sexually assaulted unless they agree to be identified.
The officers helped her into her building and left, but then returned to her building two more times when they had been assigned to respond to other incidents in the precinct, prosecutors said. Mata said in a secretly taped conversation with the woman that she had asked him to come back to her apartment.
The woman reported the next morning that she had been raped, and authorities launched an investigation. A few nights later, wearing a wire, she confronted Moreno outside the police station where he worked, seeking his version of the events.
Moreno repeatedly told her "nothing happened," and she hadn't been violated. But as she pressed and suggested she'd make a scene inside the stationhouse, he eventually said "yes" twice when she asked whether he'd used a condom, according to the recording. It was played at a court hearing last week.
As the exchange went on, Moreno again denied they had sex.
"I was just trying sincerely to help you that day. Anything else that you remember happened, whatever it was, it wasn't done intentionally," he said at one point when the two discussed the officers' not having brought her to a hospital. "I should have called an ambulance. I apologize for anything else."
Tacopina has said the officer's seemingly incriminating statements were just his efforts to appease a woman he thought could cost him his job.
Mata's lawyer, Edward Mandery, says his client committed no crime.
The officers were stripped of their guns and badges after the allegations were made public. Moreno, 43, has been an officer for about 19 years. Mata, who is in his late 20s, has been an officer for about five years.
If convicted of rape, the officers face up to 25 years in prison.