Keila Pulinario testified at her 1997 murder trial that Imagio Santana had raped her and then bragged about it to his friends. When she confronted him some days later about it, he laughed and threatened to rape her again. That is when she shot and killed him. She was convicted by a jury and is serving a sentence of 25 years to life, the maximum sentence, at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.
The conviction was affirmed by two New York State appeals courts, but now, five and a half years after the trial, federal Judge Jack Weinstein of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn has granted a writ of habeas corpus -- literally, “release the body” -- ordering New York authorities to either release or retry Pulinario.
The case offers yet another glimpse into the crime of rape, which is the most under-reported crime in the United States. According to Department of Justice figures, two thirds of all rapes are not reported. In New York City last year, according to the New York Police Department, 2,013 rapes were reported, which represents an increase, while most other crimes have decreased.
At the time of the shooting, Pulinario was a 21 year old victim of childhood sex abuse. She could neither read nor write, and had an I.Q. of 70. She had no criminal record, though she admitted she had used and sold drugs in the past. Santana, who had a sex offense charge pending involving a 14 year old girl, was a drug dealer and user; an autopsy identified the presence of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methadone in his body.
While the prosecution’s theory was that there was no rape and that the defendant was guilty of murder in the second degree, the defense to the shooting was that Pulinario was raped and suffered rape trauma syndrome (RTS) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The defendant’s legal position was that she was not criminally responsible because of mental disease or defect; that an emotional disturbance caused the defendant’s actions. The defense also claimed that the shooting was a justified act of self-defense.
The defendant’s expert witness, Dr. Linda Ledray, a clinical psychologist, had been prepared to testify that Pulinario was frightened, severely depressed, and suicidal following the rape, and that shooting Santana was a reaction to extreme trauma. But two weeks into the trial, after her lawyer conceded that his client had indeed shot Santana, the district attorney objected to having psychologist Ledray testify.
The trial judge refused to allow this expert testimony as a way of penalizing her for having been untruthful when she had been interviewed by the prosecution’s psychiatrist. She had not disclosed to this psychiatrist that she had had a prior sexual relationship with Santana. (She had disclosed this earlier to officials when reporting the rape).
Federal Judge Weinstein found that this extreme penalty violated Pulinario’s constitutional rights to a fair trial. It prevented Pulinario’s trial counsel, John Ray, from presenting evidence that because of his client’s reaction to the rape she could not have formed the intent to kill, and that, in fear of Santana, she acted in self defense. Ledray would have testified that Pulinario’s conduct including the shooting, her delay in calling the police, the omissions in her statements to the state psychiatrist, her calm demeanor were completely consistent with trauma. The prosecution’s argument that she did not act traumatized was never explained to the jury as being part of the reaction to rape. “The defense was thoroughly sandbagged,” said Barry A. Bohrer, her pro bono counsel, who handled her federal appeal along with David Crow of the Legal Aid Society.
Judge Weinstein wrote, “studies have shown that a rape victim who has a prior sexual relationship with her attacker is less likely to be believed and she may be blamed for having brought the rape upon herself.” If allowed to testify, Ledray would have explained that it is typical of rape victims to blame themselves especially if they know their rapists. Ledray would have testified that it was the defendant’s extreme fear of Santana that caused her to shoot him. The jury would have heard that she lacked criminal responsibility by reason of mental disease or defect or suffered from an extreme emotional disturbance at the time of the shooting, or that she was justified in shooting this man as an act of self defense. The self defense argument was supported by evidence that an open knife was found near Santana’s body.
In addition to omitting the extent of her prior relationship with Santana in her interview with the prosecution’s psychiatrist, the defendant appeared too calm, the prosecution argued, which caused the doctor to conclude that she was a “malingerer,” or not really suffering from an psychiatric problems.
This, Judge Weinstein wrote, “permitted the prosecution to thoroughly exploit the jurors’ misconceptions about the conduct of the rape victim and argue, among other things, that petitioner’s seemingly calm demeanor after the rape and her untruths to the psychiatrist -- which appear to be not untypical of rape victims -- were evidence that she had not been raped.”
No decision has been made on a new trial or an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in Foley Square.
Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice.