By Patrick Hedlund and Tara Kyle
EAST VILLAGE — The controversial acquittal of two police officers accused of raping a drunken East Village woman damages the public's faith in the NYPD and could prevent future victims from coming forward, advocates, elected officials and residents said Thursday.
The officers, Kenneth Moreno, 43, and Franklin Mata, 29, were found not guilty Thursday on charges of rape, burglary, falsifying records and criminal facilitation after more than two months of grueling and often graphic testimony.
"It makes me feel like there's nobody to trust and nowhere to turn," said Yael Abbey, 28, a fashion stylist. "Even when you walk in the streets and you see a police officer and you feel safe, now it makes you think twice."
Moreno and Mata denied attacking the woman in her East 13th Street apartment in late 2008 after they were called to escort her home from a cab following a night out drinking with friends.
"How many other women party and depend on the cops?" asked Mercedes Baynes, 43. "We're supposed to trust them to protect us in any situation whatsoever."
Some feared the not-guilty verdict was inevitable.
"Sadly enough, I'm not surprised with the verdict," said Jay Grayce, a rape victim herself who hosts a radio call-in shows to counsel survivors, citing the lack of DNA evidence as the most likely reason for the acquittal.
"Somehow I knew that was probably going to happen."
But the decision came as a shock to East Village Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, co-chair of the City Council's Women's Caucus, who said she and other caucus-members were "very upset" upon hearing the news.
"Personally I think it sends the wrong message, and we as women can't help but feel that we're not held to the same protections that maybe others in this city are," she said.
"I also think this is a very bad thing for the police department. By their own admission on the stand, [the officers] said that they violated the law."
The jury did vote to convict both officers on three counts of official misconduct, a misdemeanor that carries up to two years in jail and will cost both officers their jobs.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in a statement Thursday that the verdict "warrant[s] immediate termination from the Police Department, and we will pursue that today."
But the lack of a rape conviction stoked anger citywide, leading protesters to call for a protest on Friday outside Manhattan Criminal Court.
"It makes you realize that you can't really trust anyone — that you have to keep your guard up at all times," said Katy Knaack, 27, a fashion designer who often goes out in the East Village, noting police officers have tried flirting with her in the past.
"It's not only a position of power, but literally your first and last line of defense against violent crime," added her friend, Janelle Malak, 26, a filmmaker. "That makes it exponentially worse."
While Mendez noted Moreno's and Mata's actions were not reflective of all police officers, she said that the NYPD is held to a "higher standard" that is diminished by the outcome.
"They sully the names of all the good police officers who work hard to protect us," she said of the pair, adding the Women's Caucus was also planning on hosting a rally on the steps of City Hall Friday.
At the bar Heather's on East 13th Street — whose surveillance cameras recorded the officers entering and leaving the accusers apartment the night of the incident — patrons said they weren't surprised by the abuse of power.
"There are sexual opportunists, and there are people who specifically prey on drunk people," said Janice Erlbaum, 41, who's lived in the neighborhood since 1999.
"Everyone has a friend to whom this has happened, whether they know it or not. My experience amoung my group of friends is this is not unusual."
Heather's bartender Melissa Plaut said the officers felt emboldened to act with "impunity."
"Women are sort of at their mercy," said the 35-year-old. "The fact that these guys could even begin to think that they could get away with this crime is indicative of a larger problem — that the police are immune."
Mendez said the 29-year-old woman who came forward should be praised for doing so, but she nonetheless worried about the chilling effect the verdict could have.
"The crime of rape has always victimized the victim," she said, noting that the woman's drinking on the night of the incident was used to discredit her. "The perception is that she has put herself in a vulnerable position."
A guilty verdict on the rape charge would have helped undo perceptions that the accuser's intoxication automatically cast doubt on her story, Mendez added.
"Only through [a guilty verdict] can we start making changes in how people view us as a group, as women, as not just sexual objects," she said. "Not just an individual who had too much to drink that night."
Grayce, who brought charges against her attacker in California and obtained a conviction thanks in large part to DNA evidence, said other victims of rape and sexual assault should not be discouraged from coming forward, despite the decision.
"Regardless of the outcome, she's a survivor," she said of the accuser. "It took great courage for her to do what other people wouldn't dare."