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An Officer and an Atrocity

There are several conflicting theories about what happened in the 70th Precinct on the night Abner Louima was assaulted. Based on one of them, Charles Schwarz may spend the rest of his life in prison. A reexamination of the city's most depraved police-brutality case.

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When assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Vinegrad stood up on the morning of June 2 to deliver his summation at the trial of the police officers charged with brutalizing Abner Louima, it was one of those extraordinary opportunities prosecutors live for. A high-profile case. Unsympathetic defendants. A packed courtroom. Extravagant media coverage. And the whole city, if not much of the country, paying close attention.

But for Vinegrad, a formidable, battle-tested prosecutor, this was more than just a star turn in the post-O.J. era of celebrity lawyers. This was an opportunity to argue on behalf of an unimpeachably righteous cause. And so when he began to address the court at a little before ten, wearing a dark suit and a white shirt, he was stoked by the confidence that he was fighting the good fight.

Vinegrad spent almost three hours painstakingly recapping the government's case. At times straightforward, in a barely inflected, just-the-facts kind of way, and at times quite passionate, he took the jury back to the early morning hours of August 9, 1997.

The tragic chain of events began just shy of 4 a.m. at Club Rendezvous in Flatbush, where Abner Louima had spent the night dancing and drinking. An argument broke out in the club between two women, which quickly escalated and spilled out onto the sidewalk. Tearing at each other's clothes, the women ended up in a partially naked brawl, attracting a crowd of rowdy onlookers, many of whom had been drinking. When things began to get out of hand, someone called the police. Ten cops from the 70th Precinct responded.

In the ensuing chaos, police officer Justin Volpe was punched on the side of his head. Officers Charles Schwarz and Thomas Wiese mistakenly thought Abner Louima had done it, and they arrested him. (Later on, it was revealed that it was actually Louima's cousin who hit Volpe.)

On the way to the precinct, Louima was allegedly beaten in the back of the patrol car twice -- once by the arresting officers and once, at a different location, by Volpe and his partner, Thomas Bruder. Then, of course, the night's appalling denouement took place in the Seven-Oh's bathroom.

After hours of copious exposition covering time lines, locations, and witness statements, Vinegrad stepped out from behind the lectern and walked slowly toward the jury. Pressing right up against the rail in front of the jury box, he made sure to make eye contact with each of the twelve jurors: eight of them white, three Hispanic, and one black. It was his cinematic moment, his moment to transcend the mountain of detail and to lift the jury up with him to a place where they could clearly see and understand the essence of the case.

"This trial is about justice," Vinegrad told them, his voice growing stronger for effect. "This is not the streets of Brooklyn. This is not the back of a patrol car. This is not a station-house bathroom. This is a court of law. In this courtroom, the rule of law must prevail." Vinegrad's voice resonated in the hushed courtroom when he gave the jury his final pitch. "We ask that you return a verdict that delivers justice and vindicates the rule of law, a verdict that each of the defendants in this courtroom is guilty."

After eighteen hours of deliberation, the jury found Charles Schwarz guilty of holding Abner Louima down while Justin Volpe -- who'd already pleaded guilty to the crime -- sodomized him with the broken end of a broomstick (Schwarz, Wiese, and Bruder were acquitted of the assault in the patrol car). The verdict was a catharsis for the city, proof that the police weren't above the law. This time, the thin blue line provided no shelter; justice was done.

But was it? In the four months since the verdict was delivered, compelling doubts have been raised about Schwarz's participation in the crime. Though it seems hard to believe, given the resources devoted to this case, the questions about what happened on that August morning in the 70th Precinct are far from being answered. The investigation lasted nearly two years. It involved both the Brooklyn D.A.'s office and the office of the U.S. Attorney. Every one of the 700 investigators in the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau was utilized. Dozens of FBI agents worked the streets, and more than 400 people were interviewed.

Nevertheless, in the end, the government mounted a case against Schwarz built in large measure on circumstantial evidence. Parts of the trial testimony were blatantly contradictory, and the jury never got to hear critical information that plainly suggests another version of what happened. Personal animosity between Schwarz's lawyer, Stephen Worth, and Volpe's lawyer, Marvyn Kornberg, distorted the proceeding; Justin Volpe claimed that another cop had been in the bathroom with him; and Abner Louima himself, who unhesitatingly identified Justin Volpe, was never able to identify his other attacker.


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