Judgment in Jersey
"That's my husband's fucking gun!" rang out in the small, wood-paneled courtroom with the view of Yonkers twinkling across the river and through the trees. Palisades Interstate Park Police Court Judge Steven J. Zaben was hearing a seemingly routine case last Wednesday evening about summonses issued by the cops who patrol the Jersey end of the park and highway. One ticket was for parking in a handicapped space, another for "unreasonable noise," and a third for "obstruction of vehicular or pedestrian traffic." Simple stuff.
But in this particular case, the trial had gone into its third day, and the defense had barely started. Evidence was piled on the judge's desk. And the rows of folding metal chairs were filled with New York City cops, led by Deputy Commissioner for Operations Garry F. McCarthy. He and his wife and daughter were the defendants.
The prosecutor was Douglas Doyle, a compact man in a bold blue suit that looked as if it might swallow him as the night wore on. It was Doyle who yelled, " 'That's my husband's fucking gun!' " in the courtroom last Wednesday night. But it was allegedly Regina McCarthythe commissioner's wifewho uttered the phrase a few minutes before midnight on February 18, 2005.
That evening, the McCarthys' daughter Kyla was driving north on the Palisades Parkway when she stopped at the Sunoco station just south of Exit 1. She drove past the gas pumps and pulled into a handicapped space. Detective Thomas Rossi and Officer Roman Galloza of the Parkway Police were there, and one of them wrote the daughter a ticket. Kyla, who had undergone surgery and thought she deserved to use the space, called her parents. Mom and Dad arrived a short time later.
What happened next is in dispute.
The McCarthys say the Parkway cops were verbally abusive to them and then got roughtaking the commissioner's gun and manhandling him and his wife. But according to Parkway Police, McCarthysmelling of alcohol and with a gun in his waistbandspewed profanity, got in the officers' faces, and did not identify himself as an NYPD official. So the Parkway cops tossed his gun into their patrol car. Regina McCarthy grabbed the weapon, screaming, "It's my husband's!" The cops restrained and handcuffed both of them, then hauled the couple to the Parkway Police headquarters, releasing them an hour or so afterward.
That's why almost a year later, Garry and Regina McCarthy were sitting in the courtroom right across the hall from the Parkway Police headquarters, a few miles up the road from the Sunoco. Their rumpled-looking lawyer, David Hoffman, was moving to dismiss the charge against Regina because, he said, the term "unreasonable" was unconstitutionally vague. On a nearby easel we would soon see a sketch of the Sunoco parking lot intended to prove that Garry McCarthy was never obstructing traffic.
There were no charges concerning the gun, the alleged alcohol use, or the supposed resisting of arrest. It was all about three summonses carrying a combined penalty of perhaps $450.
Or maybe it was about more than that. Sitting in the back row were two NYPD internal affairs officers; they wouldn't say why they were there, but it's clear that One Police Plaza is keeping an eye on the case. McCarthy hasn't been brought up on departmental charges, but it doesn't look good for a top NYPD commander to be tussling with officers across the state line. For most of us, a summons from the Parkway police would be something we pay and forget about. Not for a guy like McCarthy, once a finalist to run the Chicago police department.
McCarthy's body language betrays the stakes. Built seemingly of bricks, wearing a sharp dark suit and red tie, McCarthy is a guy who looks as if he's used to being in control. Surveying the audience during breaks, the three-time precinct commander wins staring contests. But as the testimony goes on, he fidgets in his seat, leans forward in disgust, and stands up to whisper in his attorney's ear during cross-examination.
The first to take the stand is Parkway Sergeant Jack Auslander, a spare fellow who looks nervous: He apparently cut his scalp the last time he shaved his head. He was working the desk at Park Police headquarters the night of the arrests, and says McCarthy was "agitated" and kept talking about how he can't get summonses because of his NYPD job. "There was a detectable odor of alcohol upon him," Auslander claims.
At first, the sergeant comes across as a reasonable guy just trying to do his jobuntil Hoffman gets a crack at him. In 18 years on the force, he asks, had Auslander ever seen anybody handcuffed and arrested for "obstructing traffic" before Garry McCarthy was? Nope. Why were no Parkway Police reports on the incident filed until six days afterward? And how come Rossi, in just a few years on the force, has amassed 24 civilian complaints? "We've now spent three days trying this case, and we've gone through a lot of effort to show that the police version of this is not the correct version," Hoffman says at one point.
The funny thing is that Hoffman's stinging cross-examination of a police sergeant and the focus on a detective's complaint record are the stuff that many New York cops would normally hate to see. But with McCarthy in a jam, his NYPD entourage is definitely on the other side of the blue line this time. During breaks, they talk about the misbehavior of their Parkway brethren. Some mention a July 2005 article in Gay City News that claimed Rossi and Zaben took an unusually hard line toward gay men who were caught in the park. And they notice that Parkway Lieutenant Nelson Pagan (in court people unfortunately keep mispronouncing his name "PAY-gen"), who testified earlier in the case, keeps moving between the judge's side and the audience. He's giving signals to the witnesses, the New York cops claim.
Not all of the NYPD's 39,000 are rushing to McCarthy's side, however. Some feel he's received special treatment: Would Chief of Department Joe Esposito testify on the deputy commissioner's behalf if McCarthy were just a low-ranking beat-walker? Would Officer Nobody be allowed to keep his job after an incident like the Sunoco scuffle?
From the start, Judge Zaben shows inordinate concern for the audience's nourishment, repeatedly expressing worry about people getting faint or forgetting their medication. After about two hours of testimony, he calls a 6 p.m. dinner break and directs everyone down to the Royal Cliffs Diner at Exit 1. There, some of the players from the courtroom sit in awkward proximity: the McCarthy entourage in a corner, and the two internal-affairs cops at the center of the dining room.
Back in court after dinner, Hoffman makes a series of motions to get the summonses thrown out, questioning the legality of the laws that Kyla and Regina McCarthy allegedly broke. Prosecutor Doyle rages: "People are now welcome to run amok in our gas stations!" The judge sides with Doyle.
Then it's on to Carlton Durham, who has not only a fantastic name but also a badge and gun. Back on February 18, he was called to the Sunoco for backup and helped transport the McCarthys to the station house. He says the couple were "calm and quiet," contradicting the reports that Garry was fightin' mad.
The broad-shouldered New York cops sit in perfect silence; several chew gum in rhythm. Hoffman goes to the sketch of the Sunoco parking lot and has Durham draw how he remembered the locations of Rossi's patrol car and McCarthy's SUV on the night in question. It looks like there's about 16 feet to the side of McCarthy's vehicle for traffic to get through.
Hoffman's reasoning is inverse Johnnie Cochran: If the car could fit, you must acquit. But Durham insists that "with the vehicle parked the way they were, there wasn't any way to get them through safely."
It's high drama. The next session of the trial, slated for February 23, will feature even more, with Garry McCarthy likely to testify. Hoffman, who was a prosecutor in the Park Police Court for 12 years, says most cases there take an hour or two. State v. McCarthy will go into the record books as probably the longest and best-attended trial in Park Court historyand certainly the only one that NYPD brass have kept tabs on.
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