The racially explosive Abner Louima torture trial ended today with an uneasy mixed verdict.
A federal jury acquitted two officers accused of beating the Haitian immigrant in a patrol car, but convicted another for assaulting Louima and then holding him down while he was brutalized in a station house bathroom. A fourth officer was acquitted of coverup charges.
The main culprit in the August 1997 incident, Officer Justin A. Volpe, pleaded guilty two weeks ago. After that, the rest of the trial was expected to be anticlimactic. But today's split decision created an emotional furor outside the Brooklyn courtroom and seemed certain to reignite the smoldering debate over charges of racism and brutality in the New York Police Department.
The jury, which deliberated for three days after hearing four weeks of often graphic testimony, found Officer Charles Schwarz guilty of beating the handcuffed Louima inside the bathroom, then holding him down while Volpe brutalized him. But the jury acquitted Schwarz, Officer Thomas Wiese and Officer Thomas Bruder on charges of beating Louima in the car immediately after a melee outside a Brooklyn nightclub. Sgt. Michael Bellomo was also acquitted on charges that he lied to cover up misconduct.
Louima, who was hospitalized for two months after Volpe rammed a stick in his rectum and mouth, said he had mixed feelings about the verdict, but expressed confidence that "complete justice" will be done. Prosecutors said they still intend to try Schwarz, Wiese and Bruder on obstruction of justice charges, and Louima has retained two O.J. Simpson lawyers, Johnnie Cochran and Barry Scheck, to handle a civil lawsuit against the city.
"In the end, I hope what comes out of my case is change," Louima said at a news conference at Cochran's Manhattan office. "What happened to me should not happen to any human being."
The attack launched a citywide debate about the NYPD. Activists such as the Rev. Al Sharpton denounced it as an example of systemic brutality against minorities, while Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir denounced it as a sadistic aberration in a department that has had unprecedented success in reducing crime.
Sharpton turned the brutality charges into a mass movement this February, leading huge civil disobedience rallies after four white officers killed an unarmed West African immigrant in the Bronx. But finally, it was damning testimony from four NYPD officers that forced Volpe to admit his guilt in the Louima case, shattering the "blue wall of silence" around police misconduct, and today Giuliani praised the department for rooting out the evil in its midst.
"I thought the actions here were horrendous and perverse, and I think every police officer felt that way," said Giuliani, who is considering a Senate race that may pit him against Hillary Rodham Clinton. "People of goodwill who are not prejudiced against the police will see that."
The brunt of the prosecution's case focused on Volpe. After he vanished from the defense table on May 24, no one was sure what would happen to his co-defendants. Their attorneys moved swiftly to attack Volpe as a sociopath who acted alone, while continuing to portray Louima as an unreliable witness.
Louima never directly identified any of the other officers and he admitted on the stand that some of his grand jury testimony was inaccurate. Louima also said he falsely accused his assailants of shouting "It's Giuliani Time!" an inflammatory lie that may have diminished his credibility.
Prosecutors did convince the jury that Schwarz was involved in the restroom assault, thanks to two police whistleblowers who testified they saw Schwarz lead Louima, handcuffed with his pants at his ankles, toward that area. Louima also testified that the officer who held him down in the bathroom drove him to the station, and police records pointed to Schwarz as the driver.
But the evidence that Bruder and Wiese beat Louima was not so solid. Police found Louima's blood in their patrol car, but their lawyers argued that he could have sustained injuries during the nightclub brawl. The jury also rejected charges that Bellomo urged one of the police whistleblowers to remain silent and then lied about it.
When the verdicts were announced today, Bruder dropped his head, pumped his fist and began to cry. Wiese jubilantly hugged his lawyer. Bellomo said he was numb, and planned to "go home, turn on my air conditioner, and watch the news." Schwarz did not react visibly to his guilty verdict, but his attorney vowed to appeal, complaining that Volpe's plea unfairly tainted the jury.
Outside, friends and relatives of the officers shouted at the prosecutors, and expressed support for Schwarz and his family.
"It's everyone's worst nightmare, to be convicted of something he didn't do," said Stephen Worth, Schwarz's attorney. "The truth is, he wasn't there in the bathroom."
Volpe and Schwarz could both face life in prison, and today Sharpton vowed to hold a massive rally outside the court on the day of sentencing.
CAPTION: "In the end, I hope what comes out of my case is change," Abner Louima, left, said at a news conference in the office of his lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, right.