The New York Times

February 28, 2002

Three Convictions Overturned in Louima Torture Case


NYTfederal appeals court today overturned the convictions of three New York City police officers who had been found guilty of torturing a Haitian immigrant in a stationhouse nearly five years ago.

The convictions of the three — Charles Schwarz, Thomas Wiese and Thomas Bruder — were set aside by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in Manhattan.

The panel found there was insufficient evidence that the three had obstructed justice. It said too that Officer Schwarz's conviction for civil rights violations had to be thrown out because he was denied effective counsel and the jury was exposed to prejudicial information during deliberations.

The victim, Abner Louima, was tortured in a police station bathroom after he was arrested in a fracas at a Brooklyn nightclub on Aug. 9, 1997. Prosecutors said he was handcuffed, pinned down and then sodomized with a broomstick.

Whatever the uncertainties about who did exactly what, and when, there was no doubt that Mr. Louima was badly injured. He spent two months in a hospital for treatment of a ruptured bladder and colon.

The stationhouse incident and subsequent legal proceedings focused a harsh light on relations between New York City police officers and members of minority groups.

Today's ruling does not affect the guilty plea of Officer Justin Volpe, who admitted abusing Mr. Louima with the broomstick and was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.

Nor does it affect the $8.7 million settlement Mr. Louima agreed upon last July after months of negotiations between his lawyers and the city and police union. The settlement was the biggest ever in a New York City police-brutality case.

It was not immediately clear today whether federal prosecutors would seek new trials, and, if so, when.

But Mr. Bruder's lawyer, Stuart London, said he was elated. "It's a sweet day when you can show the government was wrong and it was wrong from the beginning," Mr. London told The Associated Press.

The three-judge Court of Appeals panel held that prosecutors failed to prove that the three defendants intended to obstruct a federal grand jury. The panel said the government relied almost totally on Mr. Bruder's supposedly false statements to investigators, but that Mr. Bruder was unaware his statements would be repeated to grand jurors — and thus there was not enough evidence to establish a conspiracy.

Mr. Schwarz was sentenced in June to 15 1/2 years for his role in the attack. Officers Wiese and Bruder received five-year sentences for lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about Mr. Schwarz's role, but have been free on bond pending appeal. In all, four officers were convicted in three trials and two pleaded guilty.

Mr. Schwarz and Mr. Volpe were tried for conspiracy to deprive Louima of his civil rights by sexually assaulting him while Officers Schwarz, Bruder and Wiese faced conspiracy to obstruct justice charges in a separate trial.

Sanford Rubenstein, a lawyer for Mr. Louima, told The A.P. that if there is a new trial for Schwarz, "we look to the federal government to retry the case and we will be supportive of their efforts as we have in the past."

Joseph Tacopina, attorney for Mr. Wiese, told The A.P. he had not seen the opinion.

"Justice has been served. It was clearly the right decision. Hopefully now Thomas Wiese, Thomas Bruder and Charles Schwarz can resume their normal lives with this and even possibly return to the force," he said.

Last September, Federal Judge Eugene H. Nickerson, who presided over the case, rejected Officer Schwarz's bid to win a new trial, saying that the testimony of a former police sergeant who came forward after four years on Mr. Schwarz's behalf was riddled with misperceptions and inaccuracies.

The decision by Judge Nickerson focused on the account of Patrick Walsh, a former Brooklyn police investigator, who appeared in Federal District Court in Brooklyn in August 2001 to challenge the testimony of the chief witness the government used to convict Mr. Schwarz and send him to prison for 15 years.

That witness, Sgt. Eric Turetzky, has repeatedly testified that he saw Mr. Schwarz leading Mr. Louima toward a bathroom in the 70th Precinct station house in Brooklyn on the night of the assault. Mr. Walsh, however, claimed under oath that during an impromptu interview only six days after the attack, Sergeant Turetzky admitted that he was not sure whether Mr. Schwarz or another officer, Thomas Wiese, had walked Mr. Louima toward his eventual ordeal.

Judge Nickerson died on New Year's Day at the age of 83.

Mr. Schwarz has been in prison for more than two and a half years and has been moved at least five times, including to federal prisons in Massachusetts, Colorado and, most recently, Springfield, Mo. He has filed court papers complaining about being mistreated in prison.