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Retrial Opens in Louima Abuse Case

Courts: A former NYPD officer is accused of holding the victim during the attack.

June 25, 2002|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Reprising a notorious case of police brutality, a prosecutor charged Monday that former officer Charles Schwarz violated Abner Louima's civil rights by holding the Haitian immigrant down in a Brooklyn station house while another patrolman tortured him with a broomstick.

"Charles Schwarz took Mr. Louima to the bathroom of the station house," Assistant U.S. Atty. Lauren Resnick told the jury during opening statements at Schwarz's second trial on accusations of violating Louima's civil rights.

"You will find beyond a reasonable doubt that Charles Schwarz participated in the brutal assault and lied to cover over this unspeakable act," the prosecutor said.

But a defense lawyer presented a different picture, alleging that Thomas Wiese helped Justin Volpe sodomize Louima in August 1997. Wiese was Volpe's partner.

Volpe pleaded guilty to the attack and is serving 30 years in prison.

The case shocked the city and shook the faith of many New Yorkers in the Police Department. The attack by the white officers on Louima, who is black, sparked street demonstrations and allegations that it was part of a pattern of excessive force against minorities.

"There was such a rush to judgment in this case, not a proper investigation," said Ronald Fischetti, the chief lawyer representing Schwarz, before the jury. "He had no reason to lie about being in that bathroom. He just wasn't there."

Fischetti said investigators never showed Louima a picture of Wiese.

Louima was the first prosecution witness at the trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. Although five years had passed and he had testified three times before, Louima's account riveted the jury.

He said Volpe told him in the bathroom "he was going to do something to me and if I make any noise, he'll kill me."

Louima said both officers punched and kicked him and he screamed in pain before Volpe attacked him with the broken broomstick. Louima said that Volpe later warned him: "If I ever talked to anyone, he'd kill me and everyone in my family."

Louima, a former security guard, identified the driver of the police car that took him to the station house after a scuffle outside a Brooklyn nightclub as the person who placed his foot over his mouth while Volpe attacked him.

Prosecutors say the driver is Schwarz, who was found guilty in 1998 on civil rights charges.

In February, a federal appeals court ordered a new trial, ruling that the 36-year-old former policeman was not adequately represented by counsel, and that the jury at his first trial was influenced by news reports. Schwarz, who had begun serving a 15-year sentence in an Oklahoma prison, was freed on $1-million bail.

The appeals court ruling also dismissed all charges against Wiese, who had been convicted along with Schwarz of conspiring to suppress information and impede the investigation. The decision prevents him from being retried, prosecutors said. Wiese had been free on bond pending appeal of his five-year sentence.

During her opening argument, Resnick told the jury that the person "who held Abner Louima down while he cried out in pain is sitting right here in this room--the defendant, Charles Schwarz."

The prosecutor said the central theme of the case was not about police officers making life-and-death decisions on the street or about the "thousands of good cops who risk their lives every day."

"This trial is about a tremendous act of brutality, the torture of a human being," Resnick said. "Charles Schwarz is charged with participating in this horrendous act and lying under oath."

Arguing for the defense, Fischetti said Louima had resisted arrest outside the nightclub and that it took four officers to handcuff him. He labeled the bathroom attack "a terribly brutal act."

"But being a victim of such a horrendous act does not give you the right to lie and implicate an innocent man," Fischetti said.

The defense lawyer told the jury that Louima previously described the second person in the bathroom as 5 feet, 7 inches tall.

"My client is 6-1," Fischetti said.

Louima spent two months in hospitals for his injuries. After charges against him were dropped, he filed a civil lawsuit against the city and received an $8.7-million settlement. He lives in Miami with his wife and three children.

Schwarz could face 20 years in prison if he is convicted.

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