Louima report raises doubts
May 27, 2002
You don't have to defend brutal cops or those who covered up or looked the other way when Abner Louima was sodomized in 1997 to recognize something stinks when - five years later - prosecutors release statements that cast doubts on Louima's credibility and former officer Charles Schwarz's guilt.
Schwarz, of course, was the cop convicted of being "the second man" in a bathroom in the 70th Precinct station house when Justin Volpe attacked Louima.
Perhaps we have all become so jaded or fatigued with the horror of this case and its trials and reversals that no one has paused to examine what the release of these statements mean.
By waiting so long to release them, prosecutors have opened the door to speculation as to what else is hidden deep in their files.
On May 10, Alan Vinegrad, now the Acting United States attorney for the Eastern District and as chief assistant, the man who prosecuted Volpe, Schwarz et. al, gave Schwarz's lawyers an FBI report of an interview with Louima's adviser, Jean-Claude Laurent. The interview was conducted on Aug. 18, 1997, nine days after the attack.
Laurent, a controversial figure in the case, was the person, Louima testified in 1999, who urged him to say that the officers had said they felt free to brutalize him because it was "Giuliani time." Louima later admitted the officers never made that statement. Laurent denied encouraging Louima to say it.
The information that Laurent gave FBI Special Agent Michael Craft and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Thompson concerned a conversation he had with Louima on Aug. 12, 1997, three days after the incident, which was radically different from Louima's testimony at the first trial.
Citing Laurent's account, the FBI report said: "The police then took him [Louima] to the bathroom and he was told to bend down and assume the position. While one officer was beating on him, another took a stick and forced it inside of him and twisted it. ... Louima told Laurent that there were four of them [police] in the bathroom and they removed their badge's (sic) before they went into the bathroom."
At Schwarz's first trial, Louima testified that only two officers were in the bathroom with him - Volpe, who pleaded guilty to assaulting him, and the driver of the car that took Louima to the precinct station house. Schwarz was that driver, though Louima did not identify him.
Laurent now denies that he ever told FBI agents that four officers were in the bathroom with Louima. Laurent did not testify at either trial.
Schwarz's first attorney, Stephen Worth, argued that Volpe was the sole cop in the bathroom with Louima and that Louima had fabricated the second cop to show systemic brutality.
In his closing argument, Vinegrad responded: "Why stop at two? I mean if he [Louima ] is such a professional victim, and he wants to show systemic brutality, why not put three cops in the bathroom? Why not put four cops in the bathroom?
"Because Abner Louima was telling the truth just like he has from day one. He told you there were two police officers in the bathroom. Volpe was one and the driver was the other, and he couldn't recognize the driver and he wasn't going to say he did just to implicate somebody in wrongdoing."
Schwarz, as we all know, was convicted of being that second officer. A federal appeals court, reversing his conviction and calling for a new trial, cited Worth's closing argument, claiming it was so spurious Worth must have had a conflict of interest [his law firm holds the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association contract ].
Well, maybe it doesn't seem so spurious now. As Worth's successor Ronald Fischetti put it in his May 17 Memorandum of Law "That this FBI report is being provided only now, almost five years after the interview, three years after Schwarz' first trial and several months after his appeal can only be characterized as shocking. ... To say Schwarz would very likely have been acquitted at his first trial had this information been disclosed to Schwarz's then counsel is no rhetorical excess."
So why after five years did Vinegrad turn over the Laurent interview? He was ordered to by U.S. District Court Judge Reena Raggi, who has taken over the case from the late Eugene Nickerson, after Fischetti had argued to the appeals court that he was entitled to all evidence inconsistent with the testimony of witnesses.
Fischetti had previously sought inconsistent material, such as interviews with 70th Precinct police officers, known as G.O. 15s. But Nickerson repeatedly ruled for the prosecution.
Since Raggi's ruling, however, Fischetti says he is receiving from prosecutors "a steady flow of testimony [like Laurent's] on a daily basis."
And how does Vinegrad respond?
In a status conference on May 17 he told Raggi: "I will tell you right off the bat, could we have made a fuller disclosure, and should we have made a fuller disclosure. ... Yes."
© 2002 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.