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An Officer and an Atrocity

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Since the indictment was handed down 26 months ago, her life has been a nightmare of almost unimaginable proportions. "For the first couple of weeks, we were just in shock," says Andra, 39, a small woman with dark hair and dark eyes who wears a delicate cross and a replica of her husband's shield at the neckline of her blouse. "The whole thing was surreal. I mean, there's Chuck on the news and in the papers, and they're saying all kinds of awful things about him, calling him a sex torturer. But we just kept saying it'll all be okay. Once they investigate and the hysteria dies down, it will all work out."

Instead, things just seemed to escalate: "All of a sudden, the federal authorities got involved and everyone started talking about the blue wall of silence and systemic police brutality. Now the mayor and Safir and Sharpton and the Feds all had something to gain. But we still had faith in the system. We still believed the truth would come out, and we never, ever in a million years thought he'd be convicted. Not with all of that reasonable doubt."

The couple met one Christmas season when they were both working at Macy's. She was an NYU art major helping out with window displays, and he was a stock clerk waiting to enter the police academy. Almost from the beginning, they seemed to be plagued by bad luck. Instead of the big church wedding they'd planned for the summer of 1991, they were forced to marry at City Hall in February of that year because Schwarz, a former Marine and a National Guard member, was called up for Operation Desert Storm.

Then, in the summer of '96, one year before the Louima incident, Schwarz's younger brother was injured diving into a pool in the Hamptons. The accident left him a quadriplegic, and indirectly led to Schwarz's being on the midnight tour in the 70th Precinct on August 9. Schwarz had been working mostly days, as a plainclothes officer in an anti-crime unit. But he needed more time to help take care of his brother. So Schwarz gave up working days. When Abner Louima was attacked, Schwarz had only been on the midnight tour at the Seven-Oh about four weeks.

While there is no bitterness in Andra's voice when she talks about what's happened to their life, her lip quivers and her eyes get heavy with tears. Quickly, however, she regains her composure. "Every second he's in there is a second too long," she says, sitting up straight again, her resolve back. "His family's been destroyed by this. But I know one day he's gonna get his life back. And what we have to do is look toward the future and take it from there."

The case has even extracted a price from those charged with investigating it. Several FBI agents working the case quit and filed a grievance because they didn't like the way it was being handled. Cathy Palmer, the lead prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office, surprised everyone when she also quit in midstream to go into private practice. And once the trial started and the defendants and their lawyers were all seated together at the defense table, it became clear that bad blood was flowing everywhere. Volpe's lawyer, Marvyn Kornberg, and Schwarz's lawyer, Stephen Worth, loathe one another.

At first, the animosity between the two litigators was based on one fairly simple fact: competition. Worth has the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association contract to represent cops, a deal worth more than $5 million a year, and Kornberg doesn't. Kornberg has spent the better part of the past ten years defending cops who opted not to use the PBA lawyers. His big selling point has long been that he may be expensive, but he's worth it because he's better than the PBA lawyers. And while it's true, as one observer said to me, that PBA lawyers have probably put more cops in jail than any army of prosecutors, Worth happens to have a solid reputation.

Months before the trial began, Kornberg began to go after the victim. He employed what he jokingly referred to in private as the "dildo defense." He told anyone who'd listen that he had medical experts who'd testify that Abner Louima's injuries -- a gaping hole in his bladder and in his rectum -- were not consistent with the forcible insertion of a foreign object. He also said experts would testify that the DNA of other men was found in Louima's fecal matter.

Translation: Abner Louima was not sodomized with a stick by Justin Volpe; he sustained his injuries while having some kind of homosexual sex. Kornberg went so far as to lay out this strategy in his opening remarks, though he discarded it once the trial began. But the damage was already done. The tactic sickened the public, and it also infuriated the other lawyers in the case, whose trial strategies were based on straightforward reasonable doubt.

Defense attorneys I spoke to, including those involved in the case, believe Kornberg's blame-the-victim soliloquies were a Johnny Cochran-like publicity play, and a blunder of spectacular proportions. They were all in agreement about what Kornberg should have done, given that the medical evidence was overwhelming that Louima was sodomized and there was virtually no doubt that Volpe did it. He should have had Volpe plead guilty early on. Then he could have offered mitigating circumstances based on a psychological evaluation and tried to make a deal with the prosecutors.

Instead, Kornberg had Volpe plead mid-trial, when the government's case was airtight and he had no real leverage to cut a deal. In fact, the prosecution wouldn't even accept Volpe's first plea, in which he said there was no other cop in the bathroom; he was alone with Louima. It wasn't until he added the second cop that they agreed to take it.

"I've never seen a lawyer quit mid-trial like that," says Tacopina. "But by that time, Kornberg had suffered all the humiliation he could stand. Kornberg took a case with this kind of impact on so many people's lives and used it as a pulpit for himself."

In the version of his plea that was finally accepted, Volpe said there was another cop in the bathroom who didn't participate in the attack but stood by the door and did nothing. Though Kornberg told the government, and Schwarz's lawyer, that the other cop Volpe was referring to was Wiese, he wasn't named in the plea. This did irreparable damage during the trial to Schwarz.


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