Abner Louima Case

Justice Denied by the Blue Wall of Silence

Revolutionary Worker #1162, August 11, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

Five years ago, Abner Louima was brutally attacked by two policemen in the bathroom of the 70th precinct in Brooklyn, NY. Dozens of other cops at the police station remained silent, and many participated in a frantic cover-up.

In a case that became an international symbol of NYPD brutality, seven cops were eventually indicted. The third trial of Charles Schwarz, one of the cops who assaulted Louima, recently ended in a mistrial in three of the four charges against him and only a single conviction for perjury. This leaves only one cop in jail--Justin Volpe, who confessed and pled guilty to sodomizing Abner Louima with a broom handle.

The Schwarz trial is a shocking concentration of a campaign to reverse the verdict of the people and to lionize cops in general as "heroes."

The Attack

On a hot summer night in August 1997, Haitian immigrant Abner Louima went out to a popular dance club in Flatbush, Brooklyn. The next morning he lay in a hospital bed--his rectum and bladder torn, his body bruised, his life threatened.

As the band stopped playing at the Club Rendezvous, a fight broke out and the cops arrived. Among the cops who showed up were Justin Volpe, Charles Schwarz, Thomas Wiese, Thomas Bruder, Mark Schofield, and Eric Turetzky.

Volpe was knocked down by a punch. Meanwhile Abner Louima, who was speaking out against the police knocking another man down, was beaten, arrested, cuffed, and thrown into a squad car by Schwarz, Wiese, and other cops. During the melee, as Volpe was chasing the man who knocked him down, he beat Patrick Antoine--a passerby who hadn't even been at the club--and then arrested him.

Schwarz drove Abner Louima to the precinct with his partner, Wiese, as a passenger. They taunted Louima with racial epithets and told him to go back to Haiti. They mistakenly reported over their radio that they had the person who had knocked down Volpe. Louima says that Schwarz and Wiese stopped the car three times to beat him. At the third stop Volpe joined the two other cops and beat Louima with his fists and radio.

At 4:35 a.m. Louima was brought into the 70th precinct. From this point forward, literally dozens of police officers and civilian employees were present, were aware of what was happening, and either remained silent or actively joined attempts to cover it up.

Volpe threatened to kill Abner Louima and his family if he dared to tell his story. But Louima did tell, in whispered Haitian Creole, to a Haitian nurse at the hospital he was taken to later. When Magalie Laurent, another nurse at the hospital, heard Louima's story, she and others called the police department Internal Affairs Bureau. When that got no immediate results, they got the story out to the media so that the world would know the truth.

The essential features of Abner's account--supported by his many particular injuries as well as the testimony of several cops and civilian employees at the precinct--have remained consistent through his many statements given to police and federal investigators, in testimony before a grand jury, and in three trials of the cops.

Then there are the versions of the cops who took part in and helped cover up the attack. Records show dozens of calls among the cops during the few days after the assault and hundreds over a period of months. There is evidence of secret meetings in the 70th precinct basement among the defendants and their Police Benevolent Association (PBA, the police union) representatives. The cops' stories have mutated, morphed, and backtracked through the three trials and hundreds of news stories. The cops' stories don't match the medical evidence and contradict each other.

On August 9, 1997, the police terror against Abner Louima continued as he was brought to the front desk of the precinct. The cops removed his belt and pulled his pants and underwear down to his ankles. The desk sergeant later testified that Schwarz brought Louima to the front desk, processed him, and led him away.

Eric Turetzky, the first cop to make statements against the others, has testified in each trial that he saw Louima being taken by Schwarz from the front desk to the back of the precinct, then down a small hallway where the only unlocked room was the bathroom.

Mark Schofield, one of the cops at the club, testified that he saw Schwarz leading Louima away from the front desk toward the back of the precinct where the bathroom was located. Schofield also testified that Volpe asked to borrow a pair of leather gloves before Louima was led to the bathroom. Volpe later returned the glove, covered with blood. Civilian precinct employees gave similar accounts in their testimonies.

Abner Louima himself has testified repeatedly that he was walked to a bathroom at the back of the precinct by the driver of the squad car--there is no question that the driver was Schwarz. In the bathroom, Schwarz was joined by Volpe. According to Louima, when Volpe kicked him in the groin, the second cop put his foot over Louima's mouth. Before sodomizing Louima with the broken broomstick, Volpe threatened, "I'm going to do something to you. If you yell or make any noise I'll kill you." Volpe wielded the stick while the second cop, the driver, held Abner by the handcuffs.

Bleeding heavily, his insides torn, Louima was thrown into a cell. Volpe told Louima, "If you tell anybody about this, I'll find you and kill you and your whole family." After the attack Volpe walked around the station as he bragged to his fellow cops that he "broke a man" and showed off the feces-stained broom handle.

After Volpe dumped Louima into the cell, other prisoners began screaming that Louima was bleeding badly. EMS was called in on a "low priority" call for "minor lacerations"- -and they were kept waiting 90 minutes before cops finally allowed Louima to be taken to the hospital.

The story of what happened at the 70th precinct is known only because Louima survived the attack and dared to speak up and because courageous nurse Magalie Laurent learned of his story and was determined that it be heard.

Abner Louima's voice joined those of the family members of police brutality victims who had not lived to tell their own stories. As the shocking assault became widely known, the growing movement against police brutality became more real to broad sections of the people who had never before questioned the "official version." And as public support and confidence in the police force and morale in the police department itself were deeply shaken, the New York State courts handed down indictments. Soon after, federal prosecutors stepped in and took over the case.

The Trials

Out of the dozens of cops and civilian employees at the 70th precinct, only seven were indicted. Volpe, Schwarz, Wiese, Bruder, and Michael Bellomo had more serious charges against them. Two other cops who were in the precinct (though not assigned there) were charged with making false statements and were given probation.

The cops and the media have put forward various versions of what happened. For example, there were claims that Louima's injuries occurred before he was arrested, as the result of consensual sex at the nightclub or that only one cop, Volpe, took Louima into the bathroom and attacked him.

Midway through the first trial in May, 1999, however, there was a sudden turn in the case. Trying to minimize his sentence in the face of an imminent conviction, Volpe admitted to attacking Louima and pled guilty. This reversed and totally discredited his previous fabrications and denials--and those of the other cops as well.

Schwarz, however, let the trial play out, and he was convicted of federal civil rights violations. Wiese, Bruder, and Bellomo were acquitted of beating Louima. Volpe was sentenced to 30 years in jail. Schwarz's sentence would await his next trial.

Carl Dix, National Spokesperson of the RCP, said of the convictions of Volpe and Schwarz: "It's rare that cops ever get convicted when they brutalize or kill people, and they almost never get more than a slap on the wrist when they are convicted. These convictions only happened because Abner Louima survived their murderous attack and had the courage to speak out. AND because of the massive outpouring of resistance around this case and other cases of police brutality. Without that, these cops would never have even faced trial. This victory belongs to us, not to the justice system. But this is only a partial victory for the people. What about the other cops who helped abuse Louima that night back in August 1997?"

In March 2000 Schwarz, Wiese, and Bruder were found guilty in a second trial on charges of obstructing justice, for their many lies about what happened to Abner Louima. Wiese and Bruder were sentenced to five years but remained free pending appeals. Schwarz was sentenced to 15 years.

During both trials, several witnesses testified that Schwarz had walked Louima to the bathroom. One of the witnesses was the cop Turetzky, who received repeated death threats and required protection to get out of the 70th precinct, never to return, once he began making statements to Internal Affairs investigators.

Jurors at both trials stated that the evidence was overwhelming that Schwarz was the second cop in the bathroom who held Abner Louima down while Volpe attacked him. A juror from the second trial, a white college professor, told the Pacifica radio show "Democracy Now": "There was very, very substantial evidence presented at trial that showed it was Schwarz who took Louima from the front desk to the bathroom. Given what Volpe actually did to the prisoner, to Louima, you needed a second person to do that. Even handcuffed, it'd be pretty hard to do what he did, given the way a person would squirm and bend and move about. So it was very clear a second person was in the bathroom and just tremendous testimony that the second person was Schwarz."

Reversing Verdicts

Now, with the reversal of the convictions of Schwarz and the others, there are two things being snatched back from the people.

First is the truth.

From the beginning there were powerful forces determined to bury the true story of what happened to Abner Louima and grab back even the hard-won partial justice achieved in the first two trials. A campaign developed to exonerate Charles Schwarz. Spearheaded by pro-cop newspaper columnists and lawyers and Schwarz's family, the campaign gained momentum in the wake of September 11, seizing on promotion of all cops as "heroes" by definition and the branding of anyone who criticizes or questions the system as unpatriotic.

In the twisted fabrications of the pro-Schwarz campaign, no longer is this the story of a brutal police attack on Abner Louima while several dozen cops and other police employees stood by or actively helped in putting up a "blue wall of silence." No longer is Abner Louima the victim of a horrendous crime. In this story, Charles Schwarz becomes the victim, and it is Schwarz' s life that was torn apart and violated.

The pro-Schwarz campaign resurrected claims that were disproved in the earlier trials. Tale after tale was spun by the cops, their families, and the cop witnesses, often contradicting themselves and each other. Media stories were loaded with attacks on Abner Louima's integrity and hints of the old lies about how he was injured during "rough sex"--incredibly, since Volpe had confessed to and been sent to jail for causing Louima's injuries. Much was made of Louima's failure to identify Schwarz by name, even though Louima has consistently identified the driver of the police car--which unmistakably was Schwarz-- as Volpe's accomplice. Minor contradictions in his statements were inflated, including statements Louima made as he was recovering hours after his first surgery, heavily medicated, and still reeling from the assault.

The heart of the campaign to free Schwarz is the claim that Louima and other witnesses were mistaken (or lied) when they identified the driver of the squad car as the second cop in the bathroom. It has been claimed that Volpe was the only cop in the bathroom and that Louima made up a second attacker because it would be less humiliating to have been abused by two cops than by one. This claim is refuted by witness testimony as well as evidence which showed that Louima had been held down by a second cop.

Some have claimed that Thomas Wiese--Schwarz's partner who, like Schwarz, had short-cropped blond hair--was actually the cop who took Louima into the bathroom. Volpe himself said in the second and third trials that Wiese was in the bathroom--but did not participate in the assault on Louima. (Another version claims that Wiese entered the bathroom only after the assault.) But Volpe is a cop who denied any guilt--until forced to confess. And he has many reason to lie, including protecting himself from retaliation by other cops or trying to reduce his sentence.

Actual evidence clearly points to Schwarz, who is substantially taller and bigger than Wiese. Louima clearly identified the squad car driver (Schwarz) as bigger than the passenger cop (Wiese). And most of those who testified that Schwarz took Louima towards the bathroom knew both cops well.

Imagine if Volpe had never confessed to ramming a broken broomstick into Abner Louima's rectum. Would Volpe, like Schwarz, be the subject of a pro-police campaign to free a "victimized" cop?

Several appeals by Schwarz failed. Finally, in February 2002, an appeals court overturned Schwarz's guilty verdicts on the civil rights charges. The appeals court did not cite any flaws in evidence in overturning the verdicts--in fact, the appeals court's decision basically confirmed Louima's account. The appeals court said it was overturning the civil rights verdicts on Schwarz on the basis that his attorney at the time had a conflict of interest. The conflict supposedly was that the attorney also represented the PBA, which later became a defendant in Abner Louima's civil suit.

This was at best a flimsy basis for reversing the verdicts. During Schwarz's original trial, the judge had explicitly warned Schwarz that his attorney might have a conflict of interest. Schwarz said he understood but emphatically waived his right to hire a different lawyer.

The concept that Schwarz's lawyer had a conflict of interest is itself revealing. How would such a conflict emerge if both Schwarz and the other cops were telling the truth about what happened? Does the conflict of interest on the part of Schwarz's lawyer mean that the PBA had an interest in maintaining the "blue wall of silence" and that this could conflict with any particular defense developed for Schwarz?

The appeals court also reversed the obstruction of justice convictions against Schwarz, Thomas Bruder, and Thomas Wiese. The appeals court judges admitted that these cops clearly lied about the assault on Louima--but declared they were technically not guilty of trying to mislead a grand jury. The decision left Bruder and Wiese totally free, not subject to any further trials.

Schwarz went on trial for the third time this June. Once again, Abner Louima was forced to relive and retell his ordeal. Once again, he courageously repeated the story of what happened to him in the 70th precinct. Once again, witnesses corroborated his story, and other cops disputed it.

But this time, Schwarz was convicted only of perjury for lying when he said he did not escort Louima towards the bathroom. The jury deadlocked on charges of perjury for denying that he was inside the bathroom, as well as on civil rights charges.

When Volpe confessed during the first trial, the other cops' lawyers quickly tried to put as much distance as they could between their clients and Volpe. They even called him brutal and said he could not be believed.

However, in the second and third Schwarz trials, the defense lawyers put Volpe on the stand to claim that it was Wiese, not Schwarz, who was in the bathroom. Village Voice columnist Wayne Barrett pointed to Volpe's possible motive for such testimony: "In a government tape of a conversation Volpe had with his father shortly before the trial, he says the lawyers [for Schwarz] `better start getting ready to do some strategizing and get me a reduction' of his 30-year jail sentence if they want his exculpating testimony. `If they think I'm falling on my sword again for nothing,' Volpe rants, `they're out of their fucking minds.'"

Wiese has never spent a day in jail and has felt free to tell reporters that he did walk Louima to the bathroom. This has played a major role in the wind to free Schwarz. (Wiese claims that he was playing outside the bathroom door with the precinct dog and did not know what Volpe was doing but assumed he was "tuning Louima up.") However, he has never testified to that in court and declined to testify in the most recent Schwarz trial, citing his right not to incriminate himself--and apparently fearing more perjury charges. And even though the jury in the recent trial could not come to a decision on the civil rights charges, they did agreed that Schwarz had lied when he said he didn't walk Louima to the bathroom.

And this brings us to the second thing being snatched back here: justice.

Of the dozens of cops in the precinct that night, not a single cop questioned brutality heaped on Louima, answered his cries for help, or tried to intervene. Not a single one.

What the cops did do was to work feverishly to put up their "blue wall of silence." Louima's determination to speak out and the huge protests of tens of thousands in the streets put a crack in the wall. Of the seven cops who had charges brought against them. four were convicted, and only two were sentenced to jail. Now only one remains jailed.

As of this writing Schwarz is scheduled to be retried on the remaining charges beginning September 9. Whether the trial will proceed as currently planned or there will be other legal twists and turns is uncertain.

One thing is clear. It is an outrage that the cops' convictions were overturned and that Schwarz even had an opportunity for a third trial. Schwarz was unequivocally convicted twice before for both directly taking part in the attack and conspiring with other cops to cover it up. Schwarz has never been acquitted of a single charge in relation to the attack on Louima.

And this gets at the basic thing that is being erased from the picture: That Abner Louima was raped and terrorized in a station full of beastly cops--some taking direct part in the assault, others helping in covering up the crime. Cops who expected nothing to come back on them.

Behind the campaign to exonerate Schwarz are intensified efforts to promote the armed enforcers that "protect and serve" the oppressive system--as the power structure sets loose a whole juggernaut of horrors around the world in the name of a "war on terrorism" and defending "our way of life." What happened to Abner Louima gets at something fundamental about this "way of life." It is a nightmare for millions of people, maintained by brutality and oppression that can rain down in the most awful ways.

Ever since the people won a taste of justice when Volpe and Schwarz were jailed, powerful forces have been trying to reverse the verdict of the people. They want the world to believe that the attack on Abner Louima was the work of a single deranged cop, that the roles of the many others who took part in the crime and the cover-up should be ignored. These moves to reverse the righteous verdict of the people are totally unjust and unacceptable.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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