New York City is having a bad year when it comes to authority figures and sexual assault. On top of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case and two NYPD police officers being acquitted of rape by a jury that seemed pretty sure that the cops were actually guilty, now a city cop is being charged with raping a woman while off duty. The alleged victim is a 25-year-old school teacher who was on her way to work when she says that Michael Pena pulled a gun on her and marched her into a nearby backyard, where he raped her. The reporting in the New York Times indicates that there were at least two witnesses, one who called 911 because she saw something that looked like rape to her, and another man who briefly saw a man with his pants down but didn’t realize that it was a violent situation.
Despite the open-and-shut-seeming nature of this case, victim advocates would be well-advised to be prepared for things to get ugly. Lately it seems like the tendency of the media, the public, and juries to put the alleged victim on trial instead the man actually accused of a crime is getting worse, not better. The jury in the NYPD rape case couldn’t seem to get past the fact that the accuser had been drinking a lot, but without the distraction of victim-blaming to get in the way, the judge that sentenced Kenneth Moreno for official misconduct seemed pretty sure that Moreno had done it. And now the Strauss-Kahn case looks like it’s going to be dismissed because the prosecution says the accuser suffers from credibility issues, even though most of them are tangential to the case.
This new accused rapist, Michael Pena, seems to be taking great interest in the previous acquittal of Frank Mata and Kenneth Moreno for rape. He’s playing the victim card, claiming that the city is trying to make an example out of him because they weren’t able to make the charges stick with Mata and Moreno. His defense team is already working the standard defense, portraying the accused as a nice family man and floating the suggestion that there are “shades of gray.” That phrase should be a red flag for victim advocates, because the odds are really high that by “shades of gray” they mean they’re doing research on the victim to see if they can put her on trial for the noncrimes of being sexually active and going to parties, instead of focusing on the evidence for the case that Pena forced her to have sex at gunpoint when she was simply trying to get to work. That she’s a school teacher might sound good on paper, but an adept defense attorney could use her job to further imply to the jury that having a social life outside of work is somehow unseemly. And with the way things are going lately, I worry that a jury might just fall for that ruse.