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Jewish World Review July 13, 2001 / 22 Tamuz, 5761

Diana West

Diana West
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Justice has not been served in the Loiuma police brutality case -- NOW that it has been announced that Abner Louima stands to collect $8.7 million from the city of New York and its police union after suffering a grievous assault in the bathroom of a Brooklyn police station in 1997, the temptation is to let this terrible case close once and for all. Even after Mr. Louima has paid off his recurring-dream team of lawyers, ranging from Johnnie Cochran to Barry Scheck, he will be a wealthy man. His attacker is behind bars. There can be little purpose, for example, in continuing to ponder the sadistic passion that drove a New York City policeman named Justin Volpe to torture the defenseless Haitian immigrant with the broken handle of a broomstick, a crime for which Volpe is now serving a 30-year-sentence.

But there is every reason to examine the calculated legal maneuvers that seem to have led to a miscarriage of justice no less outrageous: namely, the conviction of another New York City policeman named Charles Schwarz for the crime of restraining Mr. Louima during his torture session at the hands of Justin Volpe. Did Charles Schwarz do this heinous thing? While the 36-year-old ex-Marine is probably padding his cell in a federal penitentiary in the Midwest at this very moment, serving out another day of his 15-year-sentence in solitary confinement for his own safety, the gut-wrenching fact is there is no evidence that he did.

That's right. No evidence. After sifting through the cold ashes of the once-blazing media firestorm ignited by the Louima case, one imperishable truth remains. No one--not even Mr. Louima--has ever identified Charles Schwarz as having been in the station-house bathroom on the night of the attack. Indeed, Justin Volpe has stated that another policeman arrived on the scene of his crime, one named Thomas Wiese. Days after the attack took place, Thomas Wiese himself, acting against his lawyer's counsel, admitted to investigators to having been on the scene--although, he maintains, he arrived after Volpe's assault on Mr. Louima was over. In a bizarre twist--no, wrench--of logic, prosecutors chose to interpret Thomas Wiese's potentially self-incriminating statement, which has since been corroborated by Thomas Bruder, Volpe's partner on the night in question, as evidence of a conspiracy on the part of the policemen to cover up for Charles Schwarz.

(Indeed, Wiese and Bruder, along with Schwarz, were subsequently convicted on conspiracy charges stemming from the case and sentenced to five years apiece.)

But the jurors who convicted Charles Schwarz never heard any of this information. To be sure, they heard quite a lot--stunning recantations (including a mid-trial shocker as Volpe changed his plea from innocent to guilty) and conflicting testimonies (including radically shifting versions of events from Mr. Louima)--but no such compelling evidence of Charles Schwarz's innocence. This hard fact of the Louima case has haunted many of its jurors, driving no fewer than five to come forward and admit that had they just heard Volpe's testimony, they would have acquitted Schwarz. Two have signed affidavits to that effect.

But there is more to the story. As columnist Nat Henthoff, one of Charles Schwarz's more muscular champions, has sagely pointed out, "the prosecutors knew that Volpe had identified Wiese as the second man--and that Wiese had admitted he was that man. Why didn't the government--in the interest of justice--put that information in this case?"

Why, indeed. In his appeal on behalf of Charles Schwarz last December, defense attorney Ronald Fischetti went so far as to charge federal prosecutors with misconduct in their relentless campaign to convict his client. Alluding to the so-called "blue wall of silence," a code of conduct critics ascribe to the police as a technique for concealing wrongdoing, Mr. Fischetti said the federal government "erected its own wall, federal blue, behind which witnesses were intimidated, coached, homogenized and hidden, so that the theory on which investigators went public days after the Louima assault would be sustained."

No matter, it would seem, who had to suffer for it. Coincidentally or not, a couple of days before Mr. Louima and his lawyers concluded their settlement agreement with New York City, Charles Schwarz's legal team won a not- insignificant legal victory. The appeals court hearing the Schwarz case ordered prosecutors to turn over all the tapes and transcripts of the dozens of interviews police investigators conducted with police officers following the Louima attack--evidence that had been withheld from the defense throughout all the legal proceedings.

What will the defense find? Oral arguments begin on July 19. Having already learned what went wrong in the station house, we may soon begin to find out what went wrong in the courtroom.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Diana West