Justin A. Volpe et al. Trials: 1999 & 2000
Justin A. Volpe et al. Trials:
1999 & 2000
Defendants: Michael Bellomo, Thomas Bruder, Charles Schwarz, Justin A. Volpe, and Thomas Wiese
Crimes Charged: First trial: Bellomo: False statements; Bruder, Schwarz, Volpe, and Wiese: Violation of civil rights (i.e., aggravated harassment based on race, color, religion or national origin); second trial: Bruder, Schwarz, and Wiese: Conspiracy to obstruct justice
Chief Defense Lawyers: Bellomo: John Patten; Bruder: Stuart London; Schwarz: Stephen C. Worth and Ronald P. Fischetti; Volpe: Marvyn M. Kornberg; Wiese: Joseph Tacopina
Chief Prosecutors: Alan Vinegard, Lauren Resnick, and Kenneth P. Thompson
Judge: Eugene H. Nickerson
Place: Brooklyn, New York
Dates of Trials: First trial: May 6-June 9, 1999; second trial: February 7-March 6, 2000
Verdicts: First trial: Bellomo: Not guilty of cover-up; Bruder and Wiese: Not guilty of assault; Schwarz: Guilty; Volpe: Pleaded guilty during trial; second trial: Bruder, Schwarz, and Wiese: Guilty
Sentences: First trial: Volpe: 30 years imprisonment, $277,495 restitution; Schwarz: 15 years, 8 months imprisonment; Bruder and Wiese: 5 years imprisonment
SIGNIFICANCE: In these trials, four New York City police officers testified against a fellow officer, revealing a rare crack in the supposed "blue wall of silence" among law enforcement officials. Some legal experts still believe most policemen and women are reluctant to turn against fellow officers accused of brutality or corruption. This case gained national and international prominence, drawing attention to a problem that many consider commonplace in America: police violence against minority citizens.
On Tuesday morning, August 12, 1997, a voice on the answering machine of New York Daily News reporter Mike McAlary said,
You don't know me, but I am calling because in the Seven-O Precinct in Brooklyn, on August the ninth at 0400 hours, they, the cops there, sodomized a prisoner. They took a nightstick and shoved it up his behind and into his bladder. The patient is at Coney Island Hospital. His last name is L-O-U-I-M-A. Now they are trying to cover this up, because it was two white officers. And they did this to a black guy who they locked up for disorderly conduct. And now they are charging him with assault in the second. All this information can be verified if you call Coney Island Hospital or the Seven-O Precinct. I will not call you again.
Like any veteran police reporter, McAlary knew enough to take an anonymous call with a huge grain of salt, but a quick check of addresses confirmed the identity of the Louimas, a family of Haitian immigrants. A call to the hospital revealed that a prisoner-patient named Abner Louima was in critical but stable condition.
"… on tomorrow's front page.…"
McAlary found the Louima family and their lawyer, Brian Figeroux, at the hospital. Using his reporter's savvy to get to Louima's bedside despite a posted police guard, McAlary took notes for an hour as he interviewed the prisoner, who was handcuffed to his bed. He learned that Louima, a bank security guard, had been arrested early Saturday morning after a fight broke out between two women at a Brooklyn nightclub. He also learned that when Louima was brought in a hospital nurse had called the New York Police Department (NYPD) Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB)—the unit in charge of police discipline—to report the serious injuries, but Internal Affairs had not followed up. Later evidence revealed that the first complaint logged officially by the IAB wasn't until 36 hours after the nurse's call. Nor was the complaint submitted to the district attorney's office, as the law required.
McAlary told the Louima's lawyer to call the Brooklyn district attorney. "Tell him," he said, "I'm going to put this on tomorrow's front page."
Within five hours, NYPD Internal Affairs officers and assistant district attorneys were at the hospital. The next day, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir both went to Louima's bedside and denounced the attack during press conferences as television news crews besieged the hospital. Doctors detailed Louima's injuries: a wooden stick shoved into his rectum had ripped into his bladder and punctured his colon and had then been jammed into his mouth, breaking his front teeth. The police, after holding him for three hours, had called an ambulance and sent him to the hospital only after other inmates complained of his bleeding. Emergency surgery had repaired both the bladder and his lower intestine.
Cops Reassigned, Suspended, Arrested
Within a week, the 70th Precinct's commanding and executive officers were reassigned. Fourteen cops were transferred, put on desk duty, suspended, or arrested. Of the 14, Justin A. Volpe, 25, and Charles Schwarz, 31, were arrested and indicted under New York State law, charged with aggravated sexual abuse and first-degree sexual assault. Thomas Bruder, 31, and Thomas Wiese, 33, were charged with beating the victim.
Volpe was the son of a former New York police detective and had won decorations for his police work. He had also been accused once before of using excessive force while on duty, but the accusation had never been proven. Volpe maintained his innocence regarding the assault on Abner Louima. Schwarz was accused of holding down the victim while Volpe raped him with the stick.
During the 1990s, Mayor Giuliani had often heralded the rebirth of his city, citing its renewed vibrancy and civility. One reason for that improvement had been a drop in crime following the mayor's "get-tough" attitude with lawbreakers. But not all New Yorkers welcomed the new visibility and authority given to the city's police force. Some African Americans and other minority groups believed they were often unfairly targeted for police harassment and brutality. After the Louima case hit the media, anger over the perceived mistreatment of black New Yorkers erupted in full force. African-American leaders, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, attacked the NYPD for racism, and organized protest marches. At one point, thousands marched to the 70th Precinct carrying toilet plungers—the alleged weapon Volpe used during the assault.
On August 18, 1997, the U.S. Justice Department began a civil investigation of the NYPD, and in February 1998 federal prosecutors took over. (The original state charges filed against Volpe and the others were subsequently dropped.) They produced a grand jury indictment of all four officers on charges of violation of civil rights in assaulting Louima in the patrol car as they took him to headquarters. Volpe and Schwarz were also accused of kicking Louima and shoving a stick into his rectum and mouth while his hands were cuffed behind his back, with Schwarz specifically accused of holding Louima down in the bathroom while Volpe used the stick. Bruder and Wiese were also charged with criminal possession of a weapon—a portable radio with which they were alleged to have beaten Louima so severely that the patrol car's backseat became stained with blood. Sergeant Michael Bellomo, 37, was indicted on a charge of attempting to cover up the incident.
By November 1998, a new federal indictment had charged Bruder, Schwarz, and Wiese with conspiring to obstruct justice by lying to investigators from the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau and the Brooklyn D.A.'s office in a plot to cover up the incident. A court document quoted Bruder and Wiese as singling out Volpe as the instigator.
A Breach in the "Blue Wall"
The trial opened on May 6, 1999. In his opening statement, Volpe's lawyer, Marvyn Kornberg, started an aggressive defense, accusing Louima of lying and suggesting the victim's injuries had come from consensual homosexual sex that had taken place at the nightclub. However, testimony soon revealed that the famed "blue wall of silence," with which police officers traditionally surrounded and protected their fellow cops who were in trouble, had been breached by the severe brutality alleged and now evidenced in the courtroom.
Detective Eric Turetzky, who was on duty when Louima was brought in, testified that he saw officer Schwarz lead the Haitian, whose hands were cuffed and whose trousers and underpants were around his knees, down the hallway toward the men's room where the assault with the stick occurred. City officials hailed Turetzky as a hero for breaking the code of silence. The detective said, "I knew I had information. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I made a decision to come forward."
Officer Mark Schofield said Schwarz led Louima toward the hallway and Volpe had borrowed a pair of gloves, taken them into the bathroom with the prisoner, and that they were bloody when he came out. Sergeant Kenneth Wernick testified that Volpe had boasted that "I took a man down tonight," and had walked around the station house displaying a broken broomstick covered with blood and excrement.
Then, on May 25, after denying the charges and pleading not guilty for 21 months, Volpe asked Kornberg to enter a plea of guilty. Hoping to avoid the maximum sentence of life in prison, the defendant admitted, "While in the bathroom of the precinct, in the presence of another officer, I sodomized Mr. Louima with a stick." Weeping, Volpe added, "I told him if you tell anyone, I will find you and I will kill you."
The former officer explained that, in the fray outside the nightclub, he had thought Louima had punched him. At the station house, he said, he had taken the prisoner to the restroom to demand an answer as to why Louima had hit him; Louima had cursed him repeatedly he claimed, and he had gone into "an animal rage."
"The next thing I knew," said Volpe, "the stick was in. My actions were wrong." Later, he admitted, he had realized he had been mistaken about who punched him.
As Volpe went to a cell to await sentencing, the trial resumed. On June 9, after 18 hours of deliberation, the jury found Charles Schwarz guilty of beating Louima, then holding him down during the torture. Thomas Bruder and Thomas Wiese were found not guilty of the assault in the police car; Sergeant Michael Bellomo was acquitted in the cover-up charge.
Volpe, however, changed his story at this point, telling both a psychologist and a probation officer that Schwarz had been wrongfully convicted because he had not helped in the assault. Schwarz awaited sentencing as his lawyer tried to appeal the conviction.
In a crowded courtroom on December 13, 1999, Judge Eugene H. Nickerson sentenced Volpe to 30 years imprisonment and also ordered him to pay $277,495 in restitution, at a rate—questioned by courtroom skeptics—of $25 a month. Handing down the sentence, Judge Nickerson declared, "Short of intentional murder, one cannot imagine a more barbarous misuse of power than Volpe's."
The Conspiracy Trial Opens
At his sentencing for his conviction at the first trial, Volpe claimed that Wiese, not Schwarz, had been the other police officer in the restroom during the assault. The question of which policeman helped brutalize Abner Louima was crucial as the second trial, for conspiracy to cover up the crime, began on February 7, 2000, in Brooklyn Federal District Court. If Schwarz, who had now been convicted, was not directly involved in the bathroom torture after all, how could he be charged with covering up his part? If Wiese, instead, had been there, charges should now be brought against him. And if Volpe alone was responsible, the case should be closed as a single charge covered Schwarz, Wiese, and Bruder.
The three men were equally charged with lying to authorities in an attempt to clear Schwarz of the crime he had been convicted of in the first trial.
More than 100 pieces of evidence and some 23 witnesses, several of whom had testified at the first trial, were produced to support prosecutor Alan Vinegard's theory that Wiese had lied early in the investigation when he said he saw only Volpe and the victim, and not Schwarz, in the bathroom just after the attack. And, Vinegard asserted, Bruder lied months later by telling federal agents he concurred with Wiese.
Key prosecutorial evidence included flurries of telephone calls among the accused officers in the hours and days immediately after the attack. And prosecution witness Michael Immitt, a trustee of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (the police union), angrily conceded on the witness stand that, in a closed-door meeting for four days after the attack, he had counseled the defendants to keep silent, saying, "Sit tight, don't talk about it. Don't talk to anyone unless something official comes down."
On Monday, March 6, 2000, after deliberating four days, the six white and six nonwhite jury panelists found the three defendants guilty, accepting the prosecution's argument that Schwarz had recruited Bruder and Wiese to help cover up Schwarz's role in the assault. The conviction came even though Volpe testified at the second trial that Schwarz had not been in the bathroom during the attack. Schwarz, Bruder, and Wiese faced a jail sentence of up to five years, while Volpe planned to appeal his 30-year sentence.
Abner Louima also wanted another day in court, filing a $155 million civil lawsuit against the police officers, their union, the NYPD, and the city of New York.
—Bernard Ryan, Jr. and
Suggestions for Further Reading
Bartollas, Clemens, and Larry D. Hahn. Policing in America. Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn & Bacon, 1998.
Barry, Dan. "Officer Charged in Man's Torture at Station House." New, York Times (August 14, 1997): Al.
Burris, John L. and Catherine Whitney. Blue versus Black: Let's End the Conflict between Cops and Minorities. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.
Crawshaw, Ralph, Tom Williamson, and Barry Devlin. Human Rights and Policing: Standards for Good Behavior and a Strategy for Change. New York: Kluwer, 1998.
DeSantis, John. The New Untouchables: How America Sanctions Police Violence. Chicago: Noble Press, 1994.
Fried, Joseph P. "Volpe Sentenced to a 30-Year Term in Louima Torture." New York Times (December 14, 1999): Al.
Kappeler, Victor E., Geoffrey P. Alpert, and Richard D. Sluder. Forces of Deviance: Understanding the Dark Side of Policing. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1998.
Levitt, Leonard. "The Louima Verdicts: Some Splits, but Blue Wall Stands." Newsday (June 9, 1999): A4.
McFadden, Robert D. and Joseph P. Fried. "In Harsh Testimony's Wake, Officer Accused in Torture of Louima to Plead Guilty." New York Times (May 25, 1999): B4.
Roleff, Tamara L., ed. Police Brutality. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1999.
Skolnick, Jerome H. and James Fyfe. Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force. New York: The Free Press (Simon & Schuster), 1994.
"Volpe Recounts Night of Brutality, Threats and Rage." New York Times (May 26, 1999): B5.