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Court Overturns Convictions Of Three in Louima Torture

By Michael Powell

and Christine Haughney
THE WASHINGTON POST -- NEW YORK

A federal appeals court tossed out the convictions of three of the four officers convicted of torturing and sodomizing of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, saying that prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence.

Justin Volpe, the police officer who led the assault on Louima in 1997 and is now serving a 30-year prison sentence, wasn’t affected by Thursday’s ruling. He pleaded guilty to beating up Louima and sodomizing him with a broomstick in the bathroom of the 70th Precinct in Brooklyn.

But the three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously threw out the convictions of the remaining three officers. Charles Schwarz had been convicted of holding down Louima in the bathroom while Volpe assaulted him. The remaining two officers, Thomas Wiese, 38, and Thomas Bruder, 35, were convicted of lying to cover up Schwarz’ role.

The court ordered a new trial for Schwarz, who’s been serving a 15-year sentence in a federal prison in Oklahoma. He lives in solitary confinement and he’s allowed to speak with his wife just 15 minutes every month. Schwarz is expected to be released on bail next Thursday.

The remaining two officers, Wiese and Bruder, were sentenced to five years in prison but had been free on bail during their appeal. The charges against them cannot be refiled.

Louima, who now lives in Miami with his wife and three children, expressed dismayed at the decision. “I’m very fed up with it. I thought it was a moment to leave that behind me and get on with my life but, unfortunately, it seems that is not the case,” he said.

U.S. Attorney Alan Vinegrad expressed disappointment with the ruling but vowed to retry Schwarz.

The Louima case became a national symbol of police brutality, and triggered a federal investigation that eventually cracked the “Blue Wall of Silence,” the informal agreement that held that police officers don’t testify against each other.

The case began when Louima was arrested in a brawl outside a nightclub on Aug. 9, 1997. Officers handcuffed him and hauled him into the police station. At that point, Volpe claimed that Louima punched him.

Volpe and at least one other white police officer dragged Louima into a precinct bathroom. Volpe took a broken broomstick and sodomized Louima, then pushed the stick into Louima’s mouth, breaking two teeth.

Louima suffered a punctured bladder and intestines. He later sued the police department and last July received an $8.7 million settlement from New York City and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association -- the largest settlement in city history for police brutality.

The Louima case also set off a firestorm in 1997, as activists found in the Haitian a human face for their charges that former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s heralded war on crime had fueled police brutality and racism.

The mayor’s defenders have rejoined that homicides dropped 60 percent during Giuliani’s eight years in office.

Those same passions were heard Thursday. At a noon news conference in his Harlem headquarters, Rev. Al Sharpton, who has become something of an unofficial spokesman for Louima’s family, warned of possible protests and civil disobedience in days to come.