New York 1 News

February 28, 2002

Federal Appeals Court Overturns Convictions Of Three Officers In Louima Case

A federal appeals court has overturned the convictions of three police officers in the 1997 Abner Louima torture case.

The U.S. Second Circuit Court of appeals on Thursday overturned the convictions of Charles Schwarz, Thomas Wiese and Thomas Bruder, who were all found guilty of charges stemming from the assault on the Haitian immigrant.

The appeals court says the convictions of Wiese and Bruder are being overturned because of insufficient evidence that the officers obstructed justice.

The court says Schwarz's civil rights conviction must also be thrown out and a new trial ordered because Schwarz was denied effective counsel and the jury was exposed to prejudicial information during deliberations.

It's not known when Schwarz will be released from prison.

Schwarz was convicted of holding down Louima while another officer, Justin Volpe, sodomized the handcuffed prisoner with a broken broomstick in Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct bathroom in August 1997.

Schwarz denied being in the bathroom when Volpe carried out the attack, but after Volpe pleaded guilty a jury convicted Schwarz in 1999 of violating Louima's civil rights by restraining him during the assault.

Schwarz is serving a 15-year sentence; Volpe pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 years.

Bruder and Wiese were sentenced to five years for conspiracy to obstruct justice, but were released pending an appeal.

Louima’s attorney, Sanford Rubinstein, held a press conference this afternoon, where he said his client - who now lives in Florida – is a victim and wishes to remain a private citizen.

“[My client] wishes to lead a private life, so he has no comment,” said Rubinstein, “but he has faith and confidence in the judicial system, and he will cooperate in any new trial.”

Rubenstein added that he hopes federal authorities will be as vigilant in their prosecution of Schwarz at his retrial as they were at his first trial.

“I don't think at this time it is a matter of how we feel. It's a matter of the fact that we have confidence in our system of justice, and as long as it takes we will look for justice to be done,” said Rubenstein. “In this case, the guilty plea of Justin Volpe demonstrated that this did happen, and that Abner is a victim, and as long as it takes we will cooperate with the federal government to make sure that justice is done.”

Louima moved his family to Florida last year after settling a multi-million dollar lawsuit with the city.

Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg released a statement Thursday afternoon that says: "Five years ago the torture of Abner Louima shocked and disgraced our city. Such a barbaric abuse of human rights and the law is absolutely intolerable and I know Police Commissioner Ray Kelly agrees. Today's decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals is a reminder that we need to do everything we can to prevent such incidents and also to improve the relationship between the police and members of every community they protect. Throughout our history, courts have made controversial decisions but we must respect the legal process, as it is a cornerstone of our democracy. This case will take its course and eventually conclude but our efforts at healing these wounds and repairing the broken trust can never end."

Governor George Pataki also weighed in on the decision Thursday, saying, “I have firm confidence in the judicial system. I can't comment on specifics, but at the end of the day, through many twists and turns, most recently in the Yankel Rosenbaum case, I believe that justice is done and our system is a fair and appropriate one and I hope that people respect the judicial process."

Finally, the Reverend Al Sharpton says he'll fight the decision. He says he's spoken with Louima's attorney, Johnny Cochran, and they're going to continue the legal battle for Louima.

Sharpton says Volpe's confession validated that Louima did not, and he argues one man cannot be allowed to take the fall for the rest.

“This could mean that they have let these people walk on one of the ugliest, most pathetic and certainly sick crimes that we've seen in the history of this city,” said the reverend.

Sharpton adds that the decision is another major example of how the judicial system fails to protect people from police brutality.

“Collectively, communities are going to start questioning if we have a criminal justice system that gives immunity to police,” said Sharpton. “I think that is the real question. Does this present system have the ability to prosecute police that are guilty of a crime? And does a policeman have immunity once they become a member of the force?”

Sharpton says he'll fight to make sure the guilty are prosecuted and punished.