CEO Tacopina featured in The New York Times
Over the past couple of months, the defense lawyer Joseph Tacopina has found himself an object of scorn among women’s groups, advocates for sexual assault victims and others.
Mr. Tacopina defended a police officer accused of raping a drunken woman while his partner stood guard. Detractors said Mr. Tacopina had attacked the accuser’s credibility and furthered a defense for his client, Officer Kenneth Moreno, that was implausible.
But nearly a year to the day before Mr. Moreno was acquitted of rape last month, Mr. Tacopina was wrapping up a trial in which he was on the opposite side of a similar case.
In a civil trial last year in New Jersey, Mr. Tacopina won $760,000 for a woman who charged that two police officers of the NJ Transit Police Department had raped her while she was drunk.
”It was ironic,” Mr. Tacopina said. ”I can’t think of any other time in my life where two women were claiming they were drunk and raped by cops. I believed in both cases I was on the side of justice.”
Although Mr. Tacopina may have gotten favorable verdicts for his clients in both cases, his toughest test may be ahead in Mr. Moreno’s case. Mr. Moreno and his patrol partner, Franklin Mata, were convicted of misdemeanor counts of official misconduct; they were fired by the Police Department and each of them could receive up to two years in prison.
Justice Gregory Carro is to sentence the men in Manhattan Supreme Court on Tuesday. Mr. Tacopina’s job is to persuade the judge to be lenient, despite considerable public outrage over the verdicts.
The National Organization for Women has set up an online petition asking Justice Carro to give Mr. Moreno and Mr. Mata the maximum sentence. The organization has also planned a rally near the courthouse on Tuesday morning.
Mr. Tacopina’s involvement on opposite sides in the two cases highlights a larger dichotomy in his career: his willingness to take on a variety of clients has made him friends and enemies.
In addition to representing Mr. Moreno, Mr. Tacopina had another recent case that put him at odds with women’s advocates: He defended State Senator Hiram Monserrate in 2009 on charges that he sliced his companion’s face with a piece of glass. Mr. Monserrate was acquitted of the most serious felony assault charges he faced, but was convicted of misdemeanor assault.
In that case, the National Organization for Women also lobbied the judge to give Mr. Monserrate the maximum sentence, a year in jail. Instead, Mr. Monserrate, who was expelled from the Senate, was put on probation and ordered to perform community service.
But Mr. Tacopina has also taken on cases that women’s rights advocates would most likely support. Aside from the woman in New Jersey, he has represented the families of Imette St. Guillen, who was raped and killed by a SoHo bar bouncer, and Annie Le, a Yale graduate student who was killed by a lab technician shortly before she was to be married.
”I would like to be inside his mind for a minute to know how he works it out,” said Sonia Ossorio, executive director of the New York City branch of the National Organization for Women. ”Maybe he has a clinical approach to it.”
Ms. Le’s mother, Vivian, said she was not fazed by the criticism of Mr. Tacopina, who advised the family during the criminal proceedings and will probably handle civil action as well.
”Whatever some people say bad about him, I don’t care because what I see and I hear, I see in my eye, he’s taking care of my daughter’s case good,” Vivian Le said. ”He listened to my story and he made me feel comfortable when I talked to him about my daughter.”
Mr. Moreno was accused of raping a drunken woman after being called to help her into her East Village apartment building. He returned to the woman’s building three times with Mr. Mata after helping her in, but said he was only counseling her on drinking and that they never had sex.
In the New Jersey case, a woman who had gotten drunk in Manhattan in July 2006 took a PATH Train to Jersey City and told three Port Authority police officers that she needed help finding her car at Liberty State Park. Two of the officers, Gabriel Mantilla and Lennard Ryner, met her at the park, according to a civil complaint.
At the park, the woman said she wanted to sleep in her car because she was too intoxicated to drive, but Mr. Mantilla and Mr. Ryner told her that she could not and asked her to follow them in her car to a safe location. The officers led the woman to a remote, wooded area off the New Jersey Turnpike and told her that she would be arrested for drunken driving if she did not comply with their demands, the complaint said. They then raped her, according to the complaint.
Rape charges against Mr. Mantilla and Mr. Ryner were dropped, but they pleaded guilty to official misconduct and were each sentenced to three years in prison.
In the civil case, the officers argued that the sex was consensual. The jury awarded the woman $760,000.
The New Jersey case informed some of his strategy in the Moreno case, Mr. Tacopina said.
When his client in the New Jersey case was testifying, Mr. Tacopina said, she broke down several times and had to take breaks, and he feared that her emotions were overshadowing the substance of her testimony.
”I learned from the first case that you have to be able to sort of separate the emotions from the facts and make sure that you don’t rely on emotions to carry the day,” he said.
Before accepting Mr. Moreno as a client, Mr. Tacopina said, he made sure his client in the New Jersey case was comfortable with it.
Some found it hypocritical that he questioned the motives of Mr. Moreno’s accuser because she had filed a lawsuit. But Mr. Tacopina maintained that he had never said it was inappropriate to sue. He said there were differences, however, because Mr. Moreno’s accuser was suing for $57 million, while the woman in the New Jersey case sued for $5 million.
Anthony Pope, who represented one of the officers in the New Jersey case, said he was not surprised that Mr. Tacopina took on a case on the other side.
”That’s what lawyers do,” Mr. Pope said, adding that he, too, took cases on opposite sides of the courtroom, ”if I like the facts of the case; if I like the client.”
Correction: June 28, 2011, Tuesday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An article in some editions on Monday about Joseph Tacopina, a lawyer who successfully took opposing roles in two cases in which police officers were accused of raping women they had gone to assist, misidentified the agency for which the officers in the earlier case worked. It was the NJ Transit Police Department, not the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department.