NEW YORK – In a stunning turn in one of the nation's most shocking police brutality scandals, a federal appeals court Thursday threw out the convictions of three white officers in the torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.
A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that Charles Schwarz's lawyer did not defend him adequately and that the jury was tainted by news reports when it convicted him of violating Louima's civil rights by holding him down during the 1997 assault in a police station bathroom.
The court also said there was insufficient evidence to sustain the obstruction-of-justice convictions of Schwarz, 36, and officers Thomas Wiese, 38, and Thomas Bruder, 35. Wiese and Bruder had been accused of lying to cover up Schwarz's role.
Civil rights leaders and Louima supporters expressed outrage over the ruling, which reopens an explosive case that inflamed racial tensions and touched off street protests.
The Rev. Al Sharpton called the decision "a shocking display of how the judicial system continues to fail to protect citizens from police abuse."
Louima, at his home in Miami, had no comment.
The appeals court entered a judgment of acquittal for all three officers on the obstruction charges, effectively bringing an end to the case against Wiese and Bruder. The two men had been given five-year prison sentences but have been free on bail during their appeal.
But the court ordered a new trial on the civil rights charges for Schwartz, who is serving 15 years behind bars.
The ruling did not affect the guilty plea of the main attacker, Justice Volpe, 37, who admitted he sodomized the handcuffed Louima with a broken broomstick in a fit of rage. Volpe is serving 30 years.
U.S. Attorney Alan Vinegrad said that he was disappointed by the ruling but that his office is prepared to retry Schwarz.
The Police Department had no comment.
Louima had been arrested in a melee outside a Brooklyn nightclub. According to testimony, Volpe was enraged because he believed Louima had punched him from behind. Louima was brutalized in the bathroom and spent two months in the hospital with a ruptured bladder and colon.
The attack touched off a federal investigation that cracked the vaunted "blue wall of silence" that was said to protect rogue officers in the Police Department.
Schwarz's wife, Andra, said the family is looking forward to having him home. "It's like a dream," she said.
"It's a sweet day when you can show the government was wrong and it was wrong from the beginning," said Stuart London, Bruder's lawyer.
Joseph Tacopina, Wiese's attorney, said his client wants to "resume his normal life and possibly return to the force."
Schwarz has denied ever being in the bathroom. Even after his conviction, he insisted that Louima and the government's other star witness, a fellow officer, confused him with Wiese. Volpe himself indicated Schwarz was not there.
In its ruling, the appeals court suggested that Schwarz's attorney at the time, police union lawyer Stephen Worth, did not call Volpe as a witness because he wanted to avoid implicating Wiese, a union delegate.
The court said there was a "distinct possibility" that "Worth would sacrifice Schwarz's interests" for those of the police union.
Worth did not immediately return a call for comment.
The appeals court also said that the jury was tainted because it found out about Volpe's plea from a juror who learned of it through news reports.
Sanford Rubenstein, a lawyer for Louima, said his client would "look to the federal government to retry the case and we will be supportive of their efforts as we have in the past."
Louima sued the city and the police union and settled in July for $8.7 million — the largest payout in a police brutality case in New York.