|New York Attorney-General G. Oliver Koppell speaks to reporters after hearing in Casablanca 5 case, State Supreme Court, Canton, New York, April 15 1994|
CANTON, NEW YORK, APRIL 15, 1994 - The chief prosecutor of New York State came in person to a small town in upstate New York to ask that first degree rape charges be reinstated against five men convicted of having sex with an unconscious woman.
Governor Mario Cuomo made Attorney-General G. Oliver Koppell special prosecutor in the case of the "Casablanca Five" as they have become known, after the original district attorney accepted a plea bargain, where the men plead guilty to the misdemeanor of sexual misconduct, and paid fines or did community service instead of facing trial on the more serious charge of rape.
The woman was visiting the Casablanca Restaurant in Gouverneur, New York in October of 1991 when she became drunk and passed out in the washroom of the establishment. The five men admitted to having sex with her, and she only found out about the acts after gossip reached her at work days later.
There were protests of about 100 people when the plea bargain was accepted last June outside the courthouse in the small town of Gouverneur about 25 kilometres south of Brockville.
Koppell argued Friday before a sitting of the State Supreme Court in the county seat of Canton that the District Attorney could not, by statue, agree to such a drastic reductions in charges, and that the Gouverneur Town Court which accepted the plea bargain had no authority to handle the matter since the felony charges were pending against the men in County Court.
Koppell said this avoided putting the defendants in "Double Jeopardy", being tried twice on the same charge, because the action by the Town Court "was null and void - it was as if they pleaded guilty in an open field or street corner."
Defense council Mary Fahey said her client didn't "do 200 hours of community work because of a baseball umpire"'s decision, and that the the Town Court "is a duly constituted court of New York State.". Defense also said that there was no forensic evidence against their clients, and that their convictions rest on their statements to the Police, the voluntariness of which they questioned.
The motion to reinstate the rape charges is being held before acting Supreme Court Judge Eugene Nicandri, who was the County Court judge in the original trial.
Nicandri asked Koppell if he felt it was better if it was better to obtain a conviction for a lesser charge in a "partially hypothetical" case than if an accused was to go free on a more serious charge and noted that district attorney had a great deal of discretion in dealing with charges. The victim, Krista Absalon, who has consented to being identified and interviewed by the media sat in the front row of the court, accompanied by her mother and two sisters, who wore purple ribbons to protest sexual violence against women, and her lawyer Bonnie Strunk, who is suing the defendants for damages. Absalon said after adjournment she "would like to thank the Attorney-General for coming - he is doing an excellent job."
None of the defendants appeared in court, on advice of their lawyers. Fahey, representing Mario Pistolesi, said outside the court that she was confident the judge would decide against reinstating charges. "I think this is the end of the line for the charges."
Nicandri will notify lawyers when to expect his decision, expected in about a month.