Seventeen years after a woman murdered her alleged rapist, a State Supreme Court judge has issued a rare decision, ordering a parole board that declined to set her free to reconsider. The current case stems from a September night in 1995, when 21-year-old Imagio Santana was found shot to death on a street corner in Brentwood, Long Island. Santana carried no ID; he was identified by his fingerprints and by the tattoo of the word “Dominican” he had on his right arm.
The police discovered heroin on Santana’s body, and learned he’d been arrested the previous month for drug possession. Lieutenant John Gierasch, who headed the Suffolk County Homicide Squad, said that the killing “had the markings of a drug hit,” according to a New York Daily News account from the time.
But on October 18, a month after the murder, police arrested a 21-year-old woman with no criminal record, Keila Pulinario. She told police that she had shot Santana, with whom she had an on-and-off relationship for the past five years. The reason, she said, was that several days earlier, Santana had raped her in his car. When she confronted him about it, he laughed and threatened to rape her again.
During the trial, Pulinario’s lawyers revealed that the woman had an IQ of 70, couldn’t read or write, and had been sexually abused at a young age by three relatives. Dr. Linda Ledray, a sexual assault expert testifying for the defense, examined Pulinario and found that she suffered from major depressive syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and rape trauma syndrome.
Pulinario testified that she and Santana were friends growing up in Brentwood, and that both of them used drugs, sometimes together. The rape occurred, she said, on a September night in 1995, while they sat in Santana’s car and he tried to persuade her that “she deserved better” than a boyfriend she’d been fighting with. Then, he jumped on top of her, pulled the lever on her car seat so it went all the way back, and raped her.
“I told him to stop, but he just didn’t listen to me,” she said.
A few nights later, Pulinario went to Santana’s home with a gun, intending to confront him about the rape. As she later told a parole board during a hearing, “I was very hurt. I wanted to know why he did what he did and why he was going around bragging, saying he had sex with me when I told him no.”
Santana, she said, started laughing in her face when she confronted him. He said he’d rape her again, that he didn’t care, and threatened her with a knife. She pulled out the gun and fired several times, hitting him twice. She buried the gun, which was later recovered by police.
At trial, the prosecution argued that what had occurred between Pulinario and Santana hadn’t been a rape at all, but another installment in their consensual sexual relationship. They said Pulinario was only claiming to have been raped in order to win back the affections of the boyfriend, who heard that she and Santana had had sex.
Pulinario was convicted in 1997 of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life; she appealed and the sentence was reduced in 2005 to 15 years to life. At the time, the prosecutor said the reduced sentence was warranted because the jury hadn’t been allowed to hear about her post-traumatic stress or rape trauma disorders, and because Pulinario had expressed remorse, accepted responsibility for the murder and “had made great strides in the rehabilitation process.”
Pulinario is now 39 years old; since her re-sentencing, according to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, her own attorneys, and the former superintendent of Bedford Hills, the prison where Pulinario served most of her sentence, she’s worked hard to become a model prisoner. She joined a program for run by a nun named Sister Mary Nerney called STEPS to End Family Violence, which works with incarcerated women who have been victims of abuse. Her parole officer, William Meed, deemed her a “low” risk to the community.
She first became eligible for parole in 2010, an application that was denied. When she had her second parole board hearing, in June of 2012, it became clear that the parole board believed she would kill again if she were released.
At the June 2012 hearing, the parole board didn’t asked Pulinario about her time in prison or her work with the STEPS program. Instead, in a decision they issued the same day they met with her, they told Pulinario, “there is a reasonable probability that you
would not live and remain at liberty without violating the law and that your release would be incompatible with the public safety and welfare of the community.” Their decision added:
You armed yourself with a gun, lured your victim to a secluded area, and shot him in the chest and back, causing his death. You then buried the gun in an effort to fool the police. During the interview you claim your actions were just to scare the victim. However, your actions were premeditated.
That, the decision added, shows “you are a deviant and dangerous person who could pose a threat to the community.”
State law, though, says that parole boards have to consider not just the offense, but the conduct of the prisoner since then, the opinion of their parole officer, and their plans upon release (Pulinario had been offered an internship, which the board also didn’t ask about). In July, she sued the New York State Department of Corrections, along with Anthony Annucci, the acting commissioner of the DOC, and Tina Stanford, the chair of the state parole board. Her lawyers, Jodi Pieken and Andrew C. Brunsden, argued, “The Board’s decision, in essence, bases its conclusion of present dangerousness on nothing more than past criminal conduct from seventeen years ago because everything else in the record – most notably, the risk assessment – demonstrates that Ms. Pulinario is not a current danger to society.”
On February 11, State Supreme Court Justice Peter H. Moulton agreed, ruling that Pulinario does indeed deserve another hearing before the parole board, writing that they “gave great weight to the seriousness of Pulinario’s crime without any explanation of why the seventeen year old crime outweighed the voluminous evidence that indicates
that she would presently be able to live a quiet and crime-free life in society. Accordingly, the petitioner is entitled to a’new hearing and determination.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said Pulinario is scheduled for another routine parole board hearing in June; with the new order, it’s likely she’ll go before the board sooner, although a new date has not yet been set.
The full decision from Judge Moulton is on the following page.