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Men admit rape but don't go to jail

The events that took place behind locked doors at the Casablanca restaurant and bar in the early morning hours of Oct. 26, 1991, are not in dispute.

A 24-year-old woman, a technician at a nearby hospital, passed out in the women's restroom after too many free drinks. Her date, the son of the Gouverneur police chief, was asleep outside in his truck.

Five men in their 20s who were acquaintances of the woman admitted they carried her to a dining room booth and undressed her. Four of them said they had sexual intercourse with her while she was unconscious or, at best, semi-conscious.

"After hearing what they did to my body, my soul, I want them lined up on a platform and hung," the victim said in a statement she prepared for the June 5 sentencing of the five defendants.

But all five walked free that day, after they were each fined $750 and each ordered to pay $90 in court costs by the local town justice.

It was the culmination of nearly 20 months of rumor, confessions, grand jury indictments and plea bargaining.

The abrupt end to the case caused shock and soul-searching among those who could not fathom why the criminal justice system did not exact a higher penalty from men who admitted complicity in a serious sexual crime. The uproar echoed debates from other publicized sexual-assault cases like the one involving high school athletes and a retarded schoolmate in Glen Ridge, N.J.

Some 100 people marched in protest over the handling of the case and several area newspapers have called for the resignation of District Attorney Richard Manning, who approved the plea bargain that reduced felony charges of first-degree rape down to a misdemeanor charge of sexual misconduct. Others have asked the state to investigate whether local political pressure had influenced the outcome in this close-knit mining and farming village of 5,000 residents, most of whom know the victim and her assailants.

"There is a sense of outrage felt by everyone that the victim's rights were clearly violated," said Dierdre Scozzafava, a local stockbroker.

Clover Forsythe, a sister of the victim, complained bitterly about the sentence in an interview last week. "No jail time, no probation, and it wasn't even the maximum fine," she said. The victim declined to be interviewed.

Wallace A. Sibley, the part-time town justice, defended the sentences, saying the fines were the largest he had ever given to first-time offenders.

The defendants _ Mark A. Hartle, 27; Mariano G. Pistolesi, 29; David E. Cummings, 27; Michael Curcio, 23, and Gregory L. Streeter, 27 _ were indicted by a grand jury last year on first-degree rape charges that carry penalties of 25 years in prison. The grand jury was read statements that four of the five men gave to state police investigators in which they admitted taking part in the sexual assault, law enforcement officials said.

Nevertheless, the district attorney concluded earlier this year that he was unable to obtain enough other evidence to try the felony case. In an interview, Manning explained that the victim was unaware she had been raped until two weeks after the assault when friends informed her that the men were boasting about it. By that time forensic tests for physical evidence, like the presence of sperm, could no longer produce conclusive results, he added.

The incident occurred about 2 a.m., and the woman was driven home about three hours later by one of the assailants after she woke up, Manning said. When her boyfriend woke up in his truck, he found the restaurant locked, concluded his girlfriend had gotten a ride and went home alone, the police said.

Instead of going to trial, Manning agreed to a deal that allowed all five defendants named in the indictment to plead guilty to sexual misconduct and the case was then transferred from criminal court to Sibley for sentencing on the misdemeanor charges.

Manning maintains he informed the victim about the changes and said she approved them. However, the victim, her family, friends and a number of others connected with the case claim that she expressed her opposition to the lesser charges and pressed Manning to proceed with the criminal trial.

"Unequivocally, what the district attorney is saying now is not the truth," said Jennifer B. Baird, director of the rape crisis center operated by Citizens Against Violent Acts, an advocacy group in Canton, the seat of St. Lawrence County, near the Canadian border.

Robert N. Wells, a professor of government at St. Lawrence University, said, "People's sense of decency was outraged by the district attorney plea bargaining first-degree rape charges down to a misdemeanor."

A misdemeanor can be punished by a $1,000 fine, one year in jail and requirements for probation.

Sibley was reported to be out of town last week and did not return messages left at his office and home.

Manning, however, took time off from trying another rape case in the old granite and sandstone county courthouse to defend his actions.

First, he expressed dismay that the five defendants had managed to escape more severe punishment. "What they did was immoral, vicious and sleazy," he said. "They should have gotten more than a fine."

But the local press did not appreciate the obstacles in prosecuting the defendants without more evidence than their own statements, he said. "In New York State you cannot obtain a conviction on a confession alone," he explained. "There has to be a corpus delicti and in this case we had no physical evidence and no witness. The victim, if she was telling the truth, had no memory of the event. It could have been an alcoholic blackout."

If that were true, and there was no other evidence, why did he initially seek first-degree indictments from the grand jury?

"My assistant made the presentation and thought we had a better case than we did," said Manning, a 48-year-old native of Queens, N.Y. He said he hired the assistant prosecutor, Donna M. Cathy, to prosecute sex offenses shortly after Manning took office in January 1992.

Cathy resigned last summer, saying she could "no longer subject myself and reputation to the circumstances which have continued to exist in this office." She later filed a lawsuit against her former boss, claiming that he had slandered her.

Her suit was the second by a former employee against the prosecutor. Earlier in the year, Manning's former campaign manager and confidential secretary, Amanda J. Wilson, filed a $1.5-million suit claiming that she was sexually harassed by the prosecutor, a suit recently settled out of court.

Manning was asked if he had any reservations about turning the case over to Sibley, who often ate lunch at the popular restaurant and knew the owner, Tony Pistolesi, father of one of the defendants. "He's been a judge 27 years so I had to rely on his judgment," Manning said.

Though prosecutors usually make recommendations on punishment in plea bargain cases, Manning said he decided to leave the sentences up to Sibley as part of the deal.

For the victim, the sentencing was a mockery of justice, her sister said. She was allowed to submit a victim-impact statement that was "her last shred of hope" that justice would be served, Forsythe said.

"I feel as if I have fought a losing battle for the last 19 months of my life," the statement said. "First I had to deal with the fact that I was raped by five men, or should I say animals, that I thought were my friends.

"They are pigs. They will walk free to do that again."

In the last few days, as public reaction to the sentencing heated up, Manning has disputed the victim's insistence that he had gone ahead with the plea bargaining over her objections.

"She's just got dollar signs in her eyes," he said at one point, referring to the $4-million civil suit she has filed in State Supreme Court. "I helped her suit by getting these five guys to admit their guilt in court, even if it was to a misdemeanor." But Forsythe, the victim's sister, said: "The civil suit is none of his business. His business was to do what my sister wanted: punish the men who had violated her."