N.Y. police found guilty

3 men convicted of obstructing justice in Louima assault

Officer's role in question

In tears, defendants, family members vow to appeal verdicts

March 07, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Two New York City policemen and one former officer were convicted yesterday of covering up the brutal assault on Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, in an emotional verdict that the defendants' lawyers and families vowed through tears to fight.

The three defendants -- Charles Schwarz, Thomas Wiese and Thomas Bruder -- each were found guilty in federal District Court in Brooklyn of obstructing justice by conspiring to manufacture a story for authorities that Schwarz was not involved in the attack on Louima in a Brooklyn station house in 1997.

The horrible details of the assault, in which a police officer beat and sexually assaulted Louima with a broken broomstick, had been revealed at a trial last year. Yesterday's verdicts spoke to the systemic problem of whether police officers and officials of the police union lied to protect their brethren rather than the citizens they were sworn to serve.

Such concerns also were raised in the recent testimony of four New York police officers who were charged in the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, a 21-year-old Guinean immigrant, in the Bronx last year. The officers were acquitted last month of all charges.

In the Louima case, Schwarz was convicted in June of violating the victim's civil rights by pinning him down on the bathroom floor while another officer, Justin Volpe, sodomized him. Volpe pleaded guilty to attacking Louima and is serving a 30-year prison sentence. Schwarz, who has been in custody, could be given a life sentence for his conviction in that trial. Bruder and Wiese were acquitted of beating Louima in a squad car.

What emerged as a central element in both trials was Schwarz's role in the attack. After the first trial, Volpe said Schwarz was not in the bathroom during the attack. And in the second trial, Volpe testified that it was Wiese, not Schwarz, who was the second person with him in the bathroom.

In a disheartening blow to the defense, Judge Eugene Nickerson instructed the jurors in the second trial that they could convict the defendants of conspiring to lie about Schwarz even if the jurors were not sure that he had played the role described by prosecutors.

The government argued in the monthlong trial that Schwarz pinned Louima to the floor while he was tortured, and then lied about his role with the help of Bruder and Wiese. The defense, which said it would appeal yesterday's verdict, claimed there had been no plot to exculpate Schwarz because he was innocent from the start. The three officers seemed stunned to the point of hysteria yesterday each time the jury forewoman pronounced the word "guilty."

Bruder, the first to be convicted, grabbed his neck, squinting in disbelief, before laying his head on the shoulder of his lawyer and bursting into tears.

Schwarz sat back in shock when his verdict was read, then glanced angrily around the courtroom, from his lawyers to his family to the jury.

After Wiese heard his verdict, he and Bruder met in a tearful embrace, gripping each other's heads. Moments later, outside the courtroom, Wiese's mother collapsed to the floor and Wiese dropped to his knees to cradle her.

Bruder paced the hallway amid a crowd of family and friends, crying and calling out: "You tell the truth and this is what happens!"

As he was led out of the courtroom, Schwarz cursed and yelled, "Why did they do this?" His lawyer, Ronald Fischetti, said the former officer was "absolutely devastated."

The three defendants could be sentenced to five years in prison for yesterday's conviction.

Louima was not in the courtroom when the verdict was read, but a lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein, representing the Louima family issued a statement: "I hope that as a result of today's verdict, a message will be sent to police officers all over the country that they will be held accountable if and when they obstruct justice."

As in the Diallo trial, in which the white defendants killed a black man, both of the Louima trials have raised questions of racial bias within the Police Department. Volpe and the three defendants in the Louima case are white, while Louima is black.

The government faced a daunting task in proving there was a conspiracy to lie because conspiracies are, by nature, crimes of secrecy. Although the prosecution introduced reams of telephone records showing that the defendants spoke with one another in a blizzard of calls in the days after the assault -- sometimes only minutes apart -- there were no tapes of the conversations and no ironclad way to know what was discussed.

In the absence of hard evidence, the jury was left with a case of inferences: Were the defendants joining forces on the phone to concoct stories, as the government claimed? Or were the three officers, who had subdued Louima on the street, calling each other for moral support, as the defense maintained?

During the trial, several witnesses told their versions of the events of Aug. 9, 1997, for the first time.

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