New York Daily News

February 28, 2002

Breaking News

Court Overturns Convictions In Louima Torture Case

By LARRY NEUMEISTER
Associated Press Writer

n a stunning turn in one of the worst police scandals in city history, a federal appeals court on Thursday ordered a new trial for a former officer convicted of torturing Abner Louima.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan reversed Charles Schwarz's conviction for violating Louima's civil rights by restraining him during the 1997 assault in a precinct bathroom. The same ruling threw out the obstruction-of-justice convictions of Schwarz, 36, and two other officers, Thomas Wiese, 37, and Thomas Bruder, 34, in a second trial.

Louima, a black Haitian immigrant, was arrested in a melee outside a Brooklyn nightclub on Aug. 9, 1997. Officer Justice Volpe, 37, later admitted in a guilty plea that he sodomized the handcuffed prisoner with a broken broomstick in a fit of rage.

The victim suffered a ruptured bladder and colon and spent two months in the hospital.

The attack sparked street protests and a federal investigation of allegations that wayward officers were shielded by a "blue wall of silence."

Even after his conviction, Schwarz insisted that Louima — and the government's other star witness, patrolman Eric Turetzky — confused him with Wiese. At his sentencing, he denied ever being in the bathroom, saying he refused "to demean myself and beg for mercy for a crime I did not commit."

It was unclear when Schwarz, who is serving a 15-year sentence, would be freed. Numerous calls to his attorney were not returned.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn also had no immediate comment on whether they would seek to retry Bruder and Wiese.

The ruling did not affect the guilty plea of Volpe, who is serving 30 years in prison. His appeal was earlier rejected.

The three-judge panel's unanimous findings — that Schwarz was denied effective counsel and that jury deliberations were tainted — hinged on Volpe's plea in the first trial, in which he indicated that Schwarz was not the second officer in the bathroom.

The judges suggested his attorney at the time, police union lawyer Stephen Worth, did not call Volpe as a witness because he wanted to avoid implicating Wiese, a union delegate.

"Worth was positioned to try to create a reasonable doubt in the jurors' minds by arguing that Louima and Turetzky had both mistaken Schwarz for Wiese, because they look similar," the court said.

The court also cited post-verdict revelations that the jury — despite not hearing Volpe's plea — learned of it anyway from one juror who learned about it through news reports.

The court also held that convictions against all three men at a second trial for conspiracy to obstruct justice must be dismissed for insufficient evidence.

Schwarz was sentenced in June 2000 to 15 1/2 years for his role in the attack. Wiese and Bruder received five-year sentences for lying to the FBI about Schwarz's role, but have been free on bond pending appeal.

"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.

Joseph Tacopina, attorney for Wiese, said his client wanted to "resume his normal life and possibly return to the force."

Louima supporters and civil rights advocates expressed outrage.

Sanford Rubenstein, a lawyer for Louima, said his client would "look to the federal government to retry the case and we will be supportive of their efforts as we have in the past."

The Rev. Al Sharpton called the ruling "a shocking display of how the judicial system continues to fail to protect citizens from police abuse."

Louima filed a civil lawsuit against the city and the police union, which was settled in July after months of hard-fought negotiations. The city and union agreed to pay Louima and his lawyers $8.7 million — the largest payout in a police brutality case in New York.