The New York Times

March 8, 2002

Ex-Officer in Louima Case Freed, With His New Trial Set for June


federal appeals court in New York yesterday threw out the conviction of a white former police officer for taking part in the 1997 station-house torture of the Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, and overturned verdicts that the officer and two others had conspired to obstruct justice.

It was yet another stunning day in a case that became a national symbol of police brutality and distrust of government by minorities, one that tarnished the Giuliani administration and the Police Department and, through successful prosecutions, cracked the blue wall of silence that has long protected officers at the expense of justice.

The ruling leaves the main defendant convicted in a brutality case that was the most politically explosive in the city's history. That former officer, Justin A. Volpe, pleaded guilty, acknowledging that he rammed a broken broomstick up the rectum of a handcuffed Mr. Louima in the bathroom of a Brooklyn station house. He is serving a sentence of 30 years.

In reversing jury verdicts in two lower courts, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan did not assess the guilt or innocence of the three former officers in what happened at the 70th Precinct station house on the night of Aug. 9, 1997.

It held that Charles Schwarz, who was convicted of holding Mr. Louima down in the bathroom and was sentenced to nearly 16 years in prison, was denied a fair trial because his lawyer, Stephen C. Worth, had conflicts of interest representing him, and because the jury was exposed to prejudicial information during deliberations. Mr. Schwarz will get a new trial on the charge of taking part in the torture.

And the court reversed the obstruction-of-justice convictions against Mr. Schwarz, 36, and former Officers Thomas Bruder, 34, and Thomas Wiese, 38, on the grounds that prosecutors had presented insufficient evidence to prove such a conspiracy. The three will face no further legal action on that charge, which was struck down with no possibility of a retrial.

The reversals generated a flurry of news conferences and a storm of reaction yesterday — from the defendants and their lawyers, from prosecutors, from Mr. Louima and his lawyer, from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, from police and Patrolmen's Benevolent Association officials, and from an array of state and city politicians. In the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where the attack occurred and where Mr. Louima and his family once lived, there was a muted mix of suspicion and upset, acceptance and a desire to move on.

Mr. Louima, who now lives in the Miami area, said nothing. But his lawyer, Sanford A. Rubenstein, said his client would participate if another trial arose. Mr. Louima was arrested in a melee outside a Brooklyn nightclub and tortured after Mr. Volpe mistook him for someone else who had struck him.

"Abner Louima is the victim of perhaps the worst case of police brutality in the history of the nation," Mr. Rubenstein said. "He is attempting now to live his life with his family as normally as possible."

A civil suit by Mr. Louima led last year to an $8.75 million settlement by the city, whose $7.125 million share was the largest ever in a brutality case, and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which was accused of conspiring in a cover-up. It never admitted wrongdoing, but its $1.625 million share in the settlement was humbling: the first time a police union anywhere in the country had paid a brutality claim.

Ronald P. Fischetti, Mr. Schwarz's chief lawyer, expressed hope that his client would be freed on bail next week and said he was thrilled. "This is a great day for the Schwarz family and a great day for the institution of justice." He said he looked forward to a new trial before "a jury that will hear all the evidence in the case, which the first jury did not hear."

Mr. Worth, who represented Mr. Schwarz at the torture trial, said he was pleased with the decision. "Beyond that," he said, "I believe it would be inappropriate to comment as Chuck is still facing a new trial. But I certainly disagree with any suggestion that I did not act in his best interests."

Mr. Wiese, his voice giddy with relief, said: "I feel like I was reborn. I had just checked my lottery tickets. I lost, but now I guess I won. I'm still in shock." He said he had not decided whether to attempt a return to police work. He and Mr. Bruder have been out on bail pending the appeal. As for other work, he said, "It's hard to fill out an application when you're a convicted felon in the Louima case."

Mr. Wiese's lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, said: "Justice has been served. It was clearly the right decision." He expressed hope that the former officers could resume normal lives, and perhaps even return to the force. He said his client would seek to recover the police salary he had lost over the past two years. "He was only fired because of a crime he did not commit, so we will try to get that money back," he said.

Mr. Bruder's lawyer, Stuart London, called it "a sweet day when you can show the government was wrong and it was wrong from the beginning." He said that his client was entitled to have his job back. "My position is that he should be brought back immediately."

Mayor Bloomberg, in a City Hall statement, recalled that the Louima case had "shocked and disgraced our city" and said that the ruling was "a reminder that we need to do everything we can to prevent such incidents."

Mr. Giuliani, whose administration had been battered by the fatal police shootings of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond as well as the Louima case, had been quick to denounce the torture of Mr. Louima and he praised the verdict when Mr. Schwarz was convicted. Yesterday, through his spokeswoman, Sunny Mindel, he said only, "This matter is still before the courts where it will ultimately be resolved."

Alan Vinegard, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York who was chief prosecutor in the original case, said that his office was prepared to retry Mr. Schwarz. He also noted that the appeals court recognized abundant evidence that the three men had tried to "impede the investigations" of state and local authorities but had found insufficient evidence to justify convictions of conspiring to obstruct the federal grand jury.