PALO ALTO — Wealth, privilege and justice for women have once again collided at a courthouse in the heart of Silicon Valley, where the wife of a tech executive accused of beating her is furious at prosecutors for handing him a lenient plea deal.
Like “Emily Doe,” whose speech decrying Stanford student athlete Brock Turner’s light sentence for sexual assault became a viral rallying cry against “rape culture,” Neha Rastogi’s statement about her husband’s plea deal has drawn sympathy. Supporters see her as the latest victim of a justice system that trivializes violence against women, particularly in wealthy Palo Alto.
“Her experience was completely dismissed by our justice system,” said Esther Peralez-Dieckmann, executive director of Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence.
But others say there is often a sharp difference between the message advocates may want to send and the outcome the justice system can produce in a given case. Teresa Garvey, a retired domestic violence prosecutor at AEquitas, a Washington-based organization that offers training to prosecutors who handle cases of sexual and domestic violence, said “victims don’t always understand the strictures and rules of evidence.”
“The victim’s wishes are just one of many factors,” Garvey said.
The case poses a political risk for District Attorney Jeff Rosen, already facing criticism from some women’s advocates for opposing the recall of Judge Aaron Persky over Turner’s sentence, even though he disagreed with the judge’s decision and helped pass a state law mandating prison for that type of sexual assault.
The case against Rastogi’s husband returns to court in June, down the hall from the courtroom where Persky gave Turner six months in jail. And prosecutors plan to explain why the deal — Abhishek Gattani would serve 15 days in jail, spend five months doing weekend work and avoid deportation — is appropriate for his second conviction related to allegations of domestic violence.
Rastogi presented the District Attorney’s Office with recordings of some of the couple’s interactions, including one with the sounds of nine slaps and a male voice threatening to beat her. But prosecutors agreed to let Gattani, former CEO of the startup Cuberon, to plead no contest to a felony accessory after the fact to an unspecified crime and misdemeanor “offensive touching.”
“Is it offensive touching when a woman is slapped nine times by her husband until she agrees to everything he is saying?” Rastogi said in the statement she read in court earlier this month. “I call it terrorism.”
Gattani’s lawyer, Mike Paez, said, “My client and I contest the majority of what she has to say, as it is not corroborated by factual evidence.”
Assistant District Attorney Brian Welch said prosecutors agreed to the deal because they would have had difficulty proving felony domestic violence in connection with two incidents last spring that Rastogi reported. In addition to the slapping incident in June, there allegedly was an argument in their car about a month earlier as they drove home from Lake Tahoe.
Rastogi, a former Apple executive, and her lawyer have been invited to meet with Rosen before next month’s sentencing. They are hoping to persuade him to rescind the deal, though prosecutors said in a sentencing memo filed Friday that they stand by it, given the case’s evidence problems.
“We need a domestic violence conviction,” Rastogi’s lawyer, Michael Pascoe said. “Otherwise, it’s not justice.”
Members of the Bay Area’s extensive South Asian Indian community and advocates for battered women vow to rally outside the courthouse in Rastogi’s support on June 15, the day of Gattani’s sentencing hearing. The advocates say lenient sentences for domestic violence do not hold batterers accountable, protect victims or children from abuse, or deter future violence. Since Rastogi posted her statement, her lawyer’s office has been flooded with calls offering help, including money to hire security guards to protect Rastogi.
An organization that represents 5,500 female Indian physicians has written to Rep. Ro Khanna, D-San Jose, in her support. And more than 3,900 people have signed a change.org petition calling for Gattani to be jailed and then deported.
Over the objections of Rastogi and her attorney, the District Attorney’s Office agreed to reduce the felony charges against Gattani, whose daughter is an American citizen, so he could avoid deportation back to his native India, even though it would be his second conviction. In 2013, at the request of both Gattani and Rastogi, prosecutors reduced a misdemeanor domestic violence charge against him to disturbing the peace after Rastogi recanted.
“We do not want violent immigrants from any community, including our own,” said Cupertino resident and former Cisco, Dell and Juniper executive Paulette (Varghese) Altmaier.
Rastogi had presented the District Attorney’s Office with multiple audio recordings that she claimed show a pattern of abuse dating back 10 years, including recent threats to kill her and their toddler. In the recording from her cellphone last June with the slapping sounds, Gattani appears to pick a fight with her over the definition of a software bug. “You don’t want to get beaten up?” he asks. “Then control yourself.”
“Abhishek, please don’t hit me more,” she begs on the recording.
But Welch said the only evidence Rastogi produced of her injuries over the years were photos of faint bruising from the alleged slapping incident and redness from the Tahoe one, which don’t rise to the “traumatic condition” standard typical for a felony conviction. He also noted that Rastogi and Gattani are in the throes of a divorce and custody fight over their 3-year-old daughter, requiring prosecutors to overcome the defense argument that Rastogi had withdrawn $943,000 from their joint checking accounts account after reporting the alleged incidents to police and was exaggerating her claims to seek an advantage in family court.
Gattani’s first conviction involved a 2013 incident witnessed by a mail carrier. Gattani completed a 52-week domestic violence class and was released early in 2015 from formal probation and had his conviction expunged, at the couple’s request.
In the current case, prosecutors said the defense would try to they had to weigh the risk of an acquittal by a jury, including that the defense would try to cast doubt on Rastogi’s credibility by introducing her prior contradictory statements. Welch said the deal “guaranteed a felony conviction, with the same terms and conditions, including attending a 52-week batterers’ intervention class, that would have been ordered if the case went to trial and the jury convicted the defendant of at least one of the felony charges.”
Gattani was set to be sentenced earlier this month. But Judge Allison Marston Danner, who was not involved when the plea was negotiated, was on vacation. A substitute judge delayed sentencing until Danner returned after Rastogi read aloud her statement. On Friday, Danner ordered a full probation report and said she would listen to the recordings before sentencing.