Rough Justice
George Szamuely
New York Press


Prosecutors are a vindictive and opportunistic lot. Last year Justin Volpe was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment for violating Louima’s civil rights. Last week three police officers were convicted of conspiring to obstruct justice. The events that took place in the precinct house that night were terrible. But prosecutors should not be allowed to do what they like without anyone asking any questions.

On Aug. 9, 1997, police officers from the 70th Precinct were dispatched to disperse a large crowd brawling outside a club in Brooklyn. There was a fight and one of the police officers, Volpe, was knocked to the ground. Volpe believed the assailant was Louima. Police officers Charles Schwarz and Thomas Wiese arrested Louima. According to Louima, at one point on the way to the precinct, the officers got out of the car and proceeded to beat him severely. At the police station a handcuffed Louima was dragged to the bathroom and violently sodomized with a stick by Volpe. The Haitian was subsequently taken to a hospital with serious injuries to his bladder and rectum.

It was an election year and New York went crazy. Within days state prosecutors brought charges against Volpe, Schwarz, Thomas Bruder (Volpe’s partner) and Wiese. Then federal prosecutors stepped in and took over the case. This was rather outrageous. In the past, the federal government has pushed aside state authorities by claiming that locals could not be trusted to prosecute white-on-black crimes. But no one seriously believed that in New York in 1997 state courts were likely to go easy on whites. There was only one reason why the federal government stepped in: to make sure punishment would be extra severe. That way the Rev. Al Sharpton would be pacified, there would be no riots and no one would accuse Rudy Giuliani of racism or of being soft on cops. Kings County D.A. Charles Hynes stepped aside and promised that "the appropriate punishment for...these vicious acts...will be available in the federal system."

The state of New York had charged the police officers with aggravated sexual abuse, which carries a maximum of 25 years imprisonment. By any reckoning, 25 years for assault that led neither to death nor to serious permanent injury can hardly be described as lenient; still, it wasn’t life without parole. Violation of civil rights, however, does carry a life sentence.

At the trial last May, Volpe pleaded guilty and threw himself on the mercy of the court. Judge Eugene Nickerson sentenced Volpe to 30 years in prison. The prosecutor had asked for life without parole, but 30 years is still a ludicrous sentence–it’s what people get for second-degree murder. What Volpe did was dreadful and he should go to prison. But 30 years! Sodomize someone with a stick–seven years at most. Volpe was a cop, so there are aggravating circumstances. Double the sentence, then–15 years maximum.

While prosecutors were high-fiving each other over the fall of Volpe, the rest of their case was looking rather shaky. First, Louima had hired attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Barry Scheck. Since the government had already embraced the cause of Louima as its own, it was not legal protection Louima sought. He needed them to extract a cool packet from the city. For that he would need to embellish his story, establish that he was victimized by the Police Dept. as a whole, not just by one cop. Louima’s story changed. There was his claim–subsequently withdrawn–that somebody at the station had cried, "It’s Giuliani time!" Initially, he had said that Volpe alone attacked him in the bathroom. At the trial, Louima stated that another officer held him down while Volpe sodomized him. He could not identify who allegedly held him down in the bathroom. He thought it might have been the driver of the patrol car that took him to the precinct. That driver was Charles Schwarz. But Louima couldn’t identify Schwarz as the driver. In fact, he admitted that Schwarz and Officer Wiese, the passenger, looked rather similar. Luckily, two officers, Eric Turetzky and Mark Schofield, came forward to say that they saw Schwarz take Louima toward the bathroom area. Neither of them saw him going into the bathroom with Louima.

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Race Race

Al the Coward

Intruder Alert

McCain's Money

Haider Seek

Out of Africa

Prosecute NATO

Villain or Victim?

Intervention, Immigration, and Internment

Home-Grown Terrorism

Who Benefits?

Laws of Return

Embassy Row

Selling Snake Oil

Chinese Puzzle

That Was No Lady, That Was the Times

The Red Tide Turning?

Pat & The Pod

United Fundamentalist States

Let Them All Have Nukes!

Liar, Liar

Gangster Nations

Puerto Rico Libre – and Good Riddance

Leave China Alone

A World Safe for Kleptocracy

Proud To Be

All articles reprinted with permission from the New York Press

The jury acquitted Wiese, Bruder and Schwarz of beating Louima on the way to the station, but convicted Schwarz of civil rights violations–an astonishing verdict: The prosecution’s case had rested largely on Louima’s testimony and now the jury was effectively saying that it did not believe him. It convicted Schwarz, but only because of the two police officers who testified against him. Yet no one was able to place Schwarz in the bathroom at the time of the assault. Since Schwarz is facing possible life imprisonment, this is pretty rough justice.

Having failed to convict Bruder and Wiese, the government immediately announced that it would prosecute them again, this time for obstructing justice. They obstructed justice by claiming Schwarz had not taken part in the rape of Louima. This was a little tricky. Suppose Schwarz really had taken no part? After all, Volpe himself testified at the recent trial that Schwarz was not in the bathroom. Not to worry, blustered Alan Vinegrad–chief prosecutor in the case–because you can have a conspiracy to obstruct justice even if the crime never happened. "Conspiracy to obstruct justice" is one of those legalisms much beloved by prosecutors. Anyone at any time who is not denouncing someone to the police is "obstructing" justice. In any case, what was the prosecution’s evidence? The officers made 58 telephone calls to one another in the days following the assault. Obviously they were trying to get their stories straight. However, neither tapes nor transcripts of these calls are in existence. Chances are that these were just frightened young men calling one another for reassurance. No matter how awful the crime you always end up hoping the prosecution loses.

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