New York Daily News

March 1, 2002

Daily New Front PageEx-Cops Cleared In Louima Case Federal appeals court pitches civil rights convictions

In a stunning reversal, the convictions of three cops accused in the torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima were swept aside yesterday by a federal appeals court.

The three-judge panel unanimously tossed out the guilty verdict against ex-cop Charles Schwarz on charges he held Louima down during the attack in a Brooklyn stationhouse bathroom — clearing the way for a blockbuster new civil-rights trial.

The judges went even further with Thomas Bruder and Thomas Wiese, clearing the former officers along with Schwarz of trying to cover up one of the worst police brutality cases in U.S. history.

This story was reported by: MIKE CLAFFEY ROBERT GEARTY BRIAN HARMON JONATHAN LEMIRE JOHN MARZULLI MONIKA MESA HELEN PETERSON DAVE SALTONSTALL and GREG B. SMITH It was written by: DAVE GOLDINER

"I'm very upset," said Louima, 35, who won an $8.7 million settlement and now lives outside Miami. "I [had hoped] to leave that thing behind me and get on with my life. But unfortunately it seems that is not the case."

Schwarz and ex-cop Justin Volpe were convicted of civil-rights violations stemming from the brutal sodomy of Louima.

Justin Volpe  
Justin Volpe is serving a 30-year sentence.  

Volpe, who pleaded guilty to assaulting Louima with a broken stick inside the 70th Precinct stationhouse in Flatbush, is serving a 30-year prison sentence.

At a second trial, Schwarz, Bruder and Wiese were convicted of conspiring to cover up Schwarz's role in the attack.

Schwarz, 36, who had been serving a 15-year sentence at an Oklahoma prison, plans to ask for bail and could be free as early as next week.

"It's like a dream," said his wife, Andra.

Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Alan Vinegrad said in a terse statement that he accepted the decision but vowed to retry Schwarz.

Conflict Cited

The appeals panel ruled that Schwarz got a raw deal in the first trial because his lawyer never tried to point the finger at Wiese or some other cop.

  Charles Schwarz
  Charles Schwarz

Instead, lawyer Stephen Worth stuck to a line of defense that Volpe acted alone — possibly because the attorney had a $10 million contract to represent the police union. Implicating Wiese or other cops could have left the union vulnerable to a larger civil suit.

"This conflict would seem to be the only possible explanation for why Worth did not pursue the strategy of implicating Wiese," Judge John Walker wrote in the decision.

Louima was not able to identify Schwarz as the second cop. And Volpe, after admitting his guilt, has said that Wiese — not Schwarz — was in the bathroom with him, doing nothing to aid or stop the assault.

In the sharply worded 68-page decision, the judges also cited evidence that some jurors improperly learned that Volpe confessed that another cop had been in the bathroom with him.

Although the jurors did not know the identity of the second cop, "the combined effect resulted in the worst of all possible worlds for Schwarz's defense," the decision said.

On the conspiracy charges, the judges agreed there was evidence the three cops "agreed generally to impede investigators by putting forth ... a false version of what occurred."

Thomas Bruder  
Thomas Bruder  

However, the court ruled there was no evidence the three specifically intended to obstruct the federal grand jury.

Wiese and Bruder, who had been free on bail pending the appeals, celebrated the decision with family and friends at their Long Island homes.

"It's been five long years, and justice has finally been served," said Bruder, 35.

"I'm happy I've got my life back," said Wiese, 39.

The two cops said they don't know whether they will try to get their NYPD jobs back, but the police union said they should be considered for reinstatement. If rehired, the cops could be tried at a departmental hearing where the burden of proof is much lower than in a criminal case.

  Thomas Wiese
  Thomas Wiese

Louima shocked the nation when he accused cops of sexually attacking him after he was arrested outside a Brooklyn nightclub Aug. 9, 1997.

He suffered a ruptured bladder and colon and spent two months in the hospital as outrage grew over the attack and cops who hid behind a blue wall of silence.

Louima's supporters quickly denounced yesterday's ruling and threatened to call for new protests if prosecutors don't move quickly to retry Schwarz.

"This is a miscarriage of justice," said the Rev. Al Sharpton. "Society will clearly not sit by and tolerate this."

At a House hearing, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-Bronx) asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to appoint a special prosecutor to probe the appeals court ruling.

Ashcroft made no commitment, but said, "these are matters of great concern to us."

Mayor Bloomberg once again found himself confronted by the echo of a court case that ripped the city apart. On Jan. 7, the same appeals court overturned guilty verdicts against two black men in the killing of a Jewish man during the 1991 Crown Heights riots.

"This case will take its course," Bloomberg said. "But our efforts at healing these wounds and repairing the broken trust can never end."