It’s official: No good deed goes unpunished.
A jury convicted former Bay Ridge District Leader Ralph Perfetto of pretending to be a lawyer on Thursday — and now the 75-year-old neighborhood public servant is facing a year in the slammer.
The groundbreaking verdict came after three painstaking days of deliberation in the weeklong misdemeanor case — which many have labeled the trial of the century — where prosecutors painted the nattily dressed, old-school politico as an unhinged do-gooder who didn’t know when to stop helping people.
Perfetto, a boxer turned private investigator, was arrested for signing a court document indicating that he was his cousin’s lawyer during a misdemeanor arraignment proceeding on Aug. 21, 2008. During his brief time in front of Judge Evelyn LaPorte, he waived the reading of the charges against his kin, submitted testimony from two witnesses and agreed on the next court date, according to court transcripts of the proceeding.
But Perfetto says a court officer told him to sign the document, known as a “notice of appearance,” and answered questions thrown at him — nothing more.
“I never pretended to be an attorney,” Perfetto said before the trial began. “This whole thing is preposterous.”
Jurors weighing the evidence in this zany “My Cousin Vinny” spin-off ultimately agreed with him. They apparently wanted to acquit Perfetto, but the law gave them no room to maneuver.
“It was very hard,” one juror, who refused to give her name, told us after the verdict was read. “We truly believed that he had no malicious intent, but unfortunately the law doesn’t allow for that. It was not easy.”
The guilty verdict accelerates the beloved civic leader’s rapid fall from grace. Three months after his arrest last year, he lost his district leader seat to upstart Kevin Peter Carroll, who got 62 percent of the vote, ending his 18-year run as state committeeman.
Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes wouldn’t prosecute Perfetto’s case, citing the Shore Road resident’s political work.
But Staten Island Assistant District Attorney Om Kakani was happy to take the case, prosecuting Perfetto with all the vigor of a lawman on a mission to root out injustice: he called a court officer, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, and even Judge LaPorte to testify, though no one could remember seeing Perfetto in the hectic courtroom that day.
Still, Kakani had two “smoking guns” — the notice of appearance and the court transcripts.
Going over the transcripts line by line in his summation, Kakani said Perfetto had more than a half dozen chances to set the record straight but did not.
“The sin of omission is still a sin,” Kakani told the jury. “All [Perfetto] had to do was say, ‘By the way, I’m not an attorney,’ but he didn’t. He knew he was getting over on everyone and he wanted to continue that charade.”
Defense attorney Anthony Rendeiro, who didn’t call any witnesses during the trial, painted a different picture in his summation: Perfetto just followed a court officer’s instructions.
“Someone in the courtroom saw a 70-year-old man in a suit come in and asked him to fill out [the notice of appearance],” Rendeiro explained. “It was a simple mistake in a courtroom where more than 100 cases were going on. We will never know who spoke to Ralph, but the government shouldn’t have arrested a citizen because it made a mistake.”
It was clear that the jury wrestled with trial Judge Alexander Jeong’s instructions that Perfetto must be found guilty if the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he “practiced or appeared as an attorney at law.” Perfetto’s fate-holders took nothing for granted, demanding to hear several pieces of testimony. And later, the foreman sent out a note demanding that the court give the jury the legal definition of the word “lawyer” — a question that even stumped the attorneys in the room (the definition the jury ended up with was “someone who practices as an attorney at law” — not that helpful).
Perfetto stood stone faced as the guilty verdict was read, then — ever the class act — raised his hand and asked Judge Jeong for the opportunity to thank the jury for its time and attention.
But Jeong wouldn’t allow it, reminding Perfetto that anything he says should be filtered through his defense attorney — even words of appreciation.
Jeong then complimented Perfetto for being an “ideal defendant.”
“I had no control over the verdict, but [having you in the courtroom] was a pleasure,” Jeong said.
Perfetto, who turned down a chance to have the charges dismissed months earlier if he pleaded guilty, disagreed with the verdict, but said he was happy to have his day in court.
“[The jury] did its job,” Perfetto said afterwards. “All I wanted was a fair opportunity to be heard by the people. I believe I’m innocent, but this taught me a valuable lesson: no matter how noble one’s intentions may be, you have to very careful not to cross the line.”
Perfetto will be sentenced on July 18.
©2011 Community News Group
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