February 28, 2002

Appeals Court Overturns 3 Convictions in Louima Case

By Ron Howell and Joshua Robin Staff Writers

A federal appeals court today threw out the convictions of three white police officers in the Abner Louima torture case, leaving the victim "stunned" and community leaders calling for a quick retrial.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan reversed the convictions of Charles Schwarz, Thomas Wiese and Thomas Bruder in one of the worst police brutality cases in U.S. history.

Schwarz had been tried for conspiracy to deprive Louima of his civil rights, as well as obstruction of justice. The others faced only obstruction of justice charges.

The principal villain in the case, former police officer Justin Volpe, was not affected by today's ruling. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison after admitting carrying out the actual attack.

Louima, a Haitian immigrant, was sodomized with a broomstick at the 70th precinct in Brooklyn, where he had been taken following his arrest outside a Brooklyn nightclub on Aug. 9, 1997. Charges against him were later dropped.

Haitian community leaders said they were “shocked” by today's decision.

"It just seemed like a kind of wholesale overturning, and that was very disturbing," said Dina Paul Parks, acting director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, which is based in New York.

"I think that if you look at the pattern," Paul Parks said, ticking off the names of other alleged police brutality victims, including Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond, "it gives the appearance at least of a culture of impunity with the police department."

The attack by Volpe surpassed virtually all others in the recent history of the police department, in its sheer brutality. It aggravated already tense relations between then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani and minority communities.

The Haitian-American activist agreed with other community leaders who said the outrage in the Haitian community will be strong, but probably not be as sustained vocally as it was right after the brutal assault on Louima back in 1997.

Louima, who is now living in Florida, would have no comment, said his attorney, Sanford Rubenstein.

But one of his friends, asking that his name not be used, said: "He (Louima) was clearly stunned."

Attorneys for the former cops were clearly overjoyed with the court decision.

"It's a sweet day when you can show the government was wrong and it was wrong from the beginning," said Stuart London, Bruder's attorney.

Schwarz had received a 15 1/2 year sentence for his role in the attack. Wiese and Bruder got five-years for lying to the FBI about Schwarz's involvement but they have been free on bond pending appeal.

The appellate judges today ordered a new trial for Schwarz because, they said, he was denied effective counsel and the jury was exposed to prejudicial information during their deliberations.

The judges also said that insufficient evidence was presented to convict the three officers for conspiracy to obstruct justice.

It was not yet known whether federal prosecutors would seek new trials.

In a news conference at his National Action Network in Harlem, the Rev. Al Sharpton vowed civil disobedience and protests to ensure a new prosecutor be committed to prosecuting the attackers of Abner Louima.

He said the ruling “in effect says that Volpe acted alone when that is not only not the evidence, but physically impossible.”

Sharpton said he has placed a call to New York senior Sen. Charles Schumer, telling him a new U.S. attorney for the Eastern District needs to be hired that will “pursue relevant, winnable and necessary charges.”

If one isn’t appointed, Sharpton said, “In effect this could mean that they have let three people walk on one of the ugliest, most pathetic and certainly sick crimes that we’ve seen in the history of this city.”

“This is just one more round, the fight is not over,” he said. “We cannot allow one man to take a fall when clearly one man could not have operated alone.”

The publisher of The Haitian-Times, an English language weekly newspaper published in Brooklyn, said the decision will make Haitians even more cynical about the justice system.

"I am shocked about what happened," said Garry Pierre-Pierre, the publisher.

"We knew they were looking into the Schwarz case but we thought the convictions of the other officers were never in question."

Pierre-Pierre said he did not believe there will be major marches protesting the decision. "I think what this does is make people more cynical about the system, to feel that it doesn't work for them," he said.

He said that relations between the police and the community had improved significantly since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, but today's decision might be something of a setback.

Rubenstein said he wants the federal government to retry the case against the three officers.

Rubenstein said his client “is attempting to live his life as a private citizen. He has suffered as a victim, perhaps the worst case of police brutality in the history of this country and he wants to live his life.”