A grand jury threw out a slew of charges last week against the woman who says an off-duty cop attacked her while yelling homophobic slurs, then had her falsely arrested. Stephanie Dorceant was walking home with her girlfriend early on a Saturday morning in July in Flatlands when she says Officer Salvatore Aquino bumped into her. She says she asked Aquino, not knowing that he was a police officer, if he was okay, and he responded, "Mind your own business you fucking dyke." When she objected, she says he cursed at her, then beat and choked her. They were steps from the 63rd Precinct Station House, and when police arrived, they arrested Dorceant on charges of felony assault, as well as harassment, menacing, and resisting arrest.
In a criminal complaint, Aquino claimed that Dorceant was the aggressor, following him after bumping into him and punching him in the face. Dorceant bit Aquino during the altercation—she says to loosen his grip on her neck—and both were treated at hospitals. Dorceant spent two days in jail.
One of her lawyers, Benjamin Moore of the firm Moore Zeman Womble, said that his office has been unable to track down surveillance footage or the cab driver who dropped Dorceant and her partner off and who witnessed the altercation. Still, he said, prosecutors should have seen through the "absurd" claim that Dorceant, 5-feet-6 and 110 pounds, randomly attacked a 6-feet tall, 200-pound man.
"They just felt, unfortunately, like they do in pretty much every one of these cases," Moore said. "Unfortunately, without affirmative evidence like a video, they’re going to believe the police officer."
The charges went before a grand jury last month. Dorceant said, and she testified for the jury on the Friday before Thanksgiving, as 20-30 friends and activists rallied outside.
"When I walked into the room, I immediately started crying," she said. "I was so overwhelmed to have to be there and to testify and to say the whole story all over again. If they saw what I was saying was true they would drop the charges, but if they didn’t believe me I'd have to do the whole thing over again in an even more formal setting."
Dorceant said the prosecutor on hand tried to poke holes in her account, asking why she didn't have marks from being choked, and why her girlfriend didn't call police as she was being beaten. Dorceant said a doctor who checked her out noted her neck was swollen, but told her too much time had elapsed while she was imprisoned to be able to test for internal trauma to her throat. As for calling 911, Dorceant was happy her partner didn't leave her side.
"The first thing you think when you see someone getting beaten up and about to die is not, 'Hold on let me make a phone call,'" she said. Aquino was yelling for the cabbie to call police as he beat Dorceant, she previously recounted.
Dorceant said she had to break for water and tissues during her 40 minutes of testimony, and that by the time she finished, "a few of the jury members were crying with me."
She waited three long days to hear more about her fate. Last Tuesday, she received a text-message from one of her lawyers saying to call. She "prepared for the worst," then called.
"I have no bad news," she recalls hearing. "I have fabulous news: all your charges were dropped."
"The moment he said that it felt like I was breathing again," she said. "I felt like huge weight was off of my shoulders. I felt like I was free."
Moore praised the decision.
"We're grateful that the citizens of Brooklyn saw through this charade and we're very thankful that justice prevailed," he said.
Now that the criminal charges have been disposed of, Moore said Dorceant plans to sue the city, probably by next week. NYPD Internal Affairs investigators contacted Dorceant, but her attorneys advised her not to speak to them while her criminal charges were pending, she said. She plans to file a Civilian Complaint Review Board complaint now that she's in the clear. The NYPD did not immediately respond to requests for further information, and a DA's Office spokesman said he could not comment on a sealed case.
Dorceant is a bartender and freelance writer and videographer and had been planning to try to break into journalism full-time at the time of her arrest. She said the pending criminal charges kept her from applying to jobs, and that she has suffered from PTSD since being attacked:
I just woke up with a nightmare. I keep having nightmares that [police are] trying to kill me. I woke up shaking my heart was tremoring. I had to call my sister to calm me down because I dreamt that I was in jail and a cop tried to molest me and it felt very real. I constantly keep having this fear they’re going to take me, or this is all a dream and I’m actually back in Rikers.
She said she is down to three or four hours of sleep a night, has broken up with her girlfriend, and that frequent therapist visits aren't quelling the fear. The terror is so overpowering that she is planning to leave New York for several months, if not permanently, in February.
"I no longer feel safe in New York," she said. "I no longer feel safe in this country."
Dorceant plans to wind down her bartending job and visit family in Miami and Haiti. In the meantime, the ordeal has given her a much deeper appreciation for anti-police brutality activism.
"I don't want for anyone else to have to go through this," she said. "It’s something I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life. I've never been this involved. I don’t want for people to wait for it to happen to them to get involved."
The city settled a federal civil rights lawsuit against Aquino and a partner alleging brutality and false arrest for $5,000 in 2012. Aquino and another partner received Cop of the Month awards in 2014 for a robbery arrest.