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An Officer and an Atrocity

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None of the cops who were in the 70th Precinct that night and knew what happened to Abner Louima are without guilt. In the atmosphere of fear, chaos, and anger that prevailed in the station house, the cops thought first of saving their skins, protecting their colleagues, and staying out of harm's way -- everything but justice for Louima. Even officer Eric Turetzky, who came forward six days after the crime and was hailed as a hero by Mayor Giuliani, appears to have broken his silence only when he believed his career was on the line. But there are, clearly, levels of guilt, and the critical question is whether Schwarz deserves the same fate as Justin Volpe.

Charles Schwarz is currently under 23-hour-a-day lockdown in a six-by-nine-foot cell in the Metropolitan Correctional Center; he faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison. Despite the questions about his guilt, there have been few voices raised on his behalf. There are no protesters locked in arm-in-arm solidarity in front of the U.S. Attorney's office demanding his release. And there are no activists revved up to focus attention on his case.

Even the PBA, the cops' own union, has been mealy-mouthed and barely visible on his behalf. Though it's held one press conference and is contributing some money for Schwarz's defense, there's no evidence of a sustained, comprehensive effort to get the word out. It's almost as if the crime was so depraved, so unspeakable, that traditional ideas about guilt, innocence, and reasonable doubt don't seem, at least in the public's mind, to apply.

There is, however, a small but growing movement -- led by Schwarz's wife, Andra, and his new lawyer, Ronald Fischetti -- to get the judgment against him overturned. Or, at the very least, to get him a new trial. The private-investigation firm of Stanton and Maple is also part of this effort. Bill Stanton is an energetic former cop, and Jack Maple is, of course, the iconoclastic, derby-wearing former deputy commissioner under Bill Bratton. Maple, who used to sit in his small ninth-floor office at Police Headquarters drinking espresso and absorbing reams of crime data from precincts all over the city, is one of the most original thinkers in the history of the NYPD. He and Stanton have taken the case pro bono.

"I will get Chuck Schwarz out of prison," says Fischetti, "if it takes me the rest of my career. There's no doubt in my mind that Chuck Schwarz is innocent."

Charles and Andra Schwarz believe he was served up to satisfy a public hungry for retribution. And to help a mayor desperate to appear in control of the crisis during his re-election campaign. Though Mayor Giuliani was far ahead in his bid for a second term at the time Louima was attacked, he was not about to live with the impression that his Police Department -- already under fire for crossing the line, especially in minority communities -- routinely sheltered renegades and sociopaths.

It would be easy to dismiss the pro-Schwarz sentiment and scapegoat theorizing as the perfunctory posttrial bleating of defense lawyers and family (if you can't count on the loyalty of your wife and your lawyer, whose can you count on?). But a look at the murky complexities of the case reveals why the verdict against Schwarz is open to doubt.

It's simplest to start with what is not in dispute: Schwarz and Wiese arrived back at the station house on Lawrence Avenue at 4:35 a.m. with their prisoner, Abner Louima, in tow. They stopped at the desk, told the sergeant on duty they had a suspect to book, and began to do his pedigree: filling out forms with his personal information, searching him, and cataloguing his possessions.

While this was taking place, Volpe, who got back to the precinct around the same time as Schwarz and Wiese, was seen by a witness walking toward the bathroom with a sticklike object two or three feet long. Moments later, he came out of the bathroom without the object and asked one of the cops if he could borrow a pair of black leather gloves.

Volpe then went to the front desk, where Louima was still being processed, and there was a minor dispute about who would get credit for the collar. Schwarz wanted it because he originally grabbed Louima in the street and he'd gotten a little banged up in the mêlée outside Club Rendezvous. Volpe, however, was adamant about taking the arrest because he believed Louima was the guy who had punched him in the head. The desk sergeant gave the arrest to Volpe.

Determining what took place from this moment forward depends on whom you talk to. Two key prosecution witnesses, both cops, said they saw Schwarz leading Louima, still handcuffed, to the back of the precinct with his pants and his underwear down around his knees. One of these cops was Eric Turetzky, who testified he saw Schwarz turning right, into a dead-end hallway that leads only to the bathroom -- the other way, to the left, are the holding cells. Nobody, however, saw Schwarz actually take Louima into the bathroom. But why would Schwarz take Louima anywhere at that point if the arrest belonged to Volpe? And if he was walking Louima to the back of the precinct, couldn't he have been walking him to a holding cell?

Louima himself told two different stories about what exactly happened after he was booked. Sergeant William Hargrove of Internal Affairs was the first investigator to talk to Louima. He interviewed him in the hospital on Sunday night, about 48 hours after the attack.

In this interview, Louima said he was taken from the front desk of the precinct to a holding cell for about ten minutes. Then he was taken into the bathroom, and it was in there that his pants and underwear were pulled down and he was beaten and sodomized. Oddly enough, the fact that Louima said he was first taken to a cell appeared only in Hargrove's notes, not in his final written report.

The prosecution dismissed this first account as an insignificant inconsistency because in all of his subsequent statements, Louima said he was taken straight to the bathroom from the front desk. And that he was cruelly humiliated even before the attack by being marched through the precinct, handcuffed, walking "chicken-wing-style," with his pants down, his underwear down, and his genitals exposed. Remarkably, in no account and at no time was Louima able to identify Charles Schwarz. Not in a lineup, not from pictures, and not in court. He was only able to say that it was the driver of the patrol car who was the second cop in the bathroom, the one who beat him and held him down.

"I stand Schwarz up in the middle of the trial," says Stephen Worth, Schwarz's lawyer, "and I say to Louima: 'Look at this guy, this guy right here. Is this the guy?' It's a very dramatic moment. And Louima says, 'I don't know; it's either the driver or the passenger.' I mean this was his chance to point the finger at Schwarz and he doesn't take it."

The prosecution presented this inability to I.D. Schwarz as a testament to Louima's honesty. "Did he seize this chance that Mr. Worth was so generously dangling before his eyes to identify the driver as the second officer who was with him in the bathroom?" Vinegrad asked the jury. "Did he? No. He told you the truth, nothing less and nothing more: 'It looks like the driver, but I'm not sure.' He thought the driver and the passenger looked alike."


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