Brutal Force

A suspicious death in police custody and a comatose prisoner raise new charges of misconduct as Amnesty International blasts the NYPD

The stoic attendant at Brooklyn's Kings County Hospital morgue did not have all the answers to the questions Carmen Torres lobbed at him as she gazed in disbelief at a coroner's mug shots of her dead cousin.

"What happened to her?" Torres, 48, tearfully demanded.

Two grim photographs she'd carefully inspected on the afternoon of October 1 seemed to prove that the body of Yvette Marin Kessler—a 36-year-old heroin addict who was the mother of a month-old baby and five other children—bore marks from a beating.

"I don't know," the attendant said, shrugging his shoulders. "She was brought in that way."

Torres reluctantly signed one of the pictures, a routine rite of identification that the relative of a deceased person goes through at a city morgue. She tugged at them slightly as the attendant tightened his grasp. He said that the only way she could have the photos was by showing him a subpoena.

"Those pictures better not disappear!" Torres warned.

Later that day, after making funeral arrangements, Torres contacted the office of Dr. Beverly Leffers, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Kessler. According to Torres, Leffers said the family would have to wait another two or three months to learn how Kessler died.

Write a letter, she was told.

Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office, says Torres misunderstood Leffers. "We always let the family know what the cause of death is," says Borakove. "She was apparently referring to her receiving the written autopsy report."

"By the way, what hospital did she die in?" Torres remembers asking Leffers.

"She died at Central Booking," the pathologist reportedly replied.

Given the runaround Carmen Torres has gotten since her cousin died, she no longer has any doubts: someone is trying to cover up the circumstances surrounding Kessler's death. Borakove says that the medical examiner's office planned to issue its preliminary findings on October 13.

The family has hired a lawyer.

"Based on information we have, we are alleging that the police beat Yvette Kessler," says attorney Casilda Roper-Simpson, who, with her partner, Carl W. Thomas, is representing the family. A source in the 75th Precinct told the attorneys that two officers and a detective beat Kessler. "Apparently, she kept asking to go to the bathroom, and I guess they got annoyed," says Roper-Simpson. Citing the source and two other alleged witnesses, she adds, "They removed two other inmates from the cell and beat her."

Police say the case is still under investigation, but maintain there is no evidence that Kessler was abused by jailers. They say that on September 28, she was arrested in the East New York section of Brooklyn on unspecified drug charges. Those charges eventually were dropped, but police said she was held on an outstanding warrant from Norfolk, Virginia. The reason for the warrant was not disclosed. (Torres told the Voice that the cops were mistaken or were deliberately being misleading about the warrant. She says there was a warrant for Kessler's arrest in New York because she failed to complete a court-ordered sentence of community service for a drug offense in Virginia. "She was pregnant and couldn't finish it," Torres adds.)

According to police, Kessler was transported at midnight to Central Booking at 120 Schermerhorn Street in downtown Brooklyn. Two hours later, she complained of abdominal pains, and was taken to Long Island College Hospital, where she was treated and released. At about 5:30, she was returned to a cell at Central Booking. At 8 a.m., one of the women in the cell notified officers that Kessler was unconscious. EMS technicians pronounced her dead at the scene.

Roper-Simpson says that another of Kessler's cellmates saw cops come into the cell and beat her. And a man arrested on drug charges with Kessler, who was in a cell nearby, claims he heard a female screaming. Both are afraid to go public with their allegations, Roper-Simpson says. The attorneys allowed the Voice to examine independent photos of the body, which show facial bruises and a broken nose.

Carmen Torres recalls that before leaving her home in the Cypress Hills section of Brooklyn at about 4 p.m. on September 28, Kessler complained of stomach cramps and a tingling sensation in her arm, but speculated that she was perhaps feeling ill due to postpartum pain. She argues, however, that Kessler's symptoms could not have resulted in death.

"It was not right for the family to bury her and not know what she died of," says Roper-Simpson.

As allegations of police brutality in Yvette Kessler's death came to light, civil rights advocates proclaimed that, on the heels of the NYPD's violent disruption of the Million Youth March in Harlem, the incident capped a particularly brutal September—one of the most notorious periods in the department's so-called "quality of life" crackdown.

And that was before it was revealed that six days prior to Kessler's death, Jean Charles, a Haitian immigrant with no known history of medical problems and no history of criminal wrongdoing, had been discovered comatose in the back seat of a police van.

Both Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir, who have been accused of coddling brutal cops, insisted that in each incident police did not use excessive force.

The outcry from the activist community might have been muffled by City Hall's dismissive spin had it not been for the coincidental release last week of an Amnesty International report, which concludes that New York City under Rudy Giuliani is plagued with killer cops and abusive prison guards. The report singles out the NYPD for last year's horrific attack against Haitian immigrant Abner Louima and the 1994 choking death of Anthony Baez. It also criticizes the department for excessive use of deadly force. Giuliani responded with his usual inflated rhetoric, claiming that the force has one of the lowest per capita shooting rates in the country. He also said that the report looked at only a few incidents, and to call his cops among the worst in the nation was an "outrage."

Three days after the report was released, federal judge Shira Scheindlin sentenced former Bronx police officer Francis Livoti for using an illegal choke hold, which resulted in Anthony Baez's death. In sentencing Livoti to seven and a half years in prison, Scheindlin berated the officer for showing little remorse over the killing, and added that the NYPD "knew [Livoti] was dangerous" and did nothing about it.

Under fire, Safir—clearly acting on orders from the mayor—pulled off what many activists viewed as a cosmetic racial hustle. Over the weekend, Safir axed Officer Joseph Locurto, a white cop who donned blackface and rode on a float in a Labor Day parade in Broad Channel, Queens, parodying the brutal and racist killing of a black man. In a statement, Safir, who downplayed the charges in the Amnesty International report, said Locurto does not deserve to wear the shield of a New York police officer and should be dismissed. He added that Locurto's behavior at the parade set a poor example, which brought shame to the NYPD.

Norman Siegel, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, countered that if the dismissal of Locurto is intended to cover up the Giuliani administration's embarrassing record of combating racism within the department, that act of "self-righteous hypocrisy" will backfire.

"This is the same NYPD that does not fire cops who beat people up while on duty, call them racial names, have disciplinary records, and lie," charges Siegel, who represented Locurto at his departmental hearing. "The decision is utterly baffling and irrational. Moreover, it demonstrates that both the mayor and the NYPD leadership still do not get it when it comes to realistically ameliorating racism within the NYPD."

Racism allegedly turned the American dream of Jean Charles—who was only trying to obey the law—into a nightmare on a recent fall morning. Today, the 53-year-old father of three, who emigrated from Haiti 18 years ago, languishes in a coma in Brooklyn Hospital. His family and lawyers are appalled by the circumstances surrounding his arrest and what subsequently happened to him.

Around 9 a.m. on September 24, police said in a statement, Charles went to the headquarters of the Brooklyn South Task Force on Coney Island Avenue to turn himself in on a very unusual warrant.

Forty minutes later, he was taken to Criminal Court in downtown Brooklyn. "While at court," according to the police statement, "Mr. Charles suffered a seizure and was transported to Brooklyn Hospital by EMS." Four days later, Internal Affairs investigators who went to the hospital to interview Charles were told by a doctor that he was in "critical condition following surgery to relieve pressure which caused a blood clot [on] his brain. As a result of the blood clot, Mr. Charles had suffered a stroke."

Police said that when the investigators "specifically asked...if there were any signs of force," the doctor replied that "there were no signs of trauma to his head." Charles's condition "was related directly to his hypertension," they quoted the physician as saying.

Veteran civil rights attorney Eric G. Poulos, who is representing the family, says a doctor at the hospital told Charles's son, Jean Charles Jr., 26, a different story. "When he arrived at the hospital, he was told by the doctor that the police said they had to use force on his father," Poulos says. "When Jean Charles Jr. began to question the doctor, a police officer who was in the room reading a newspaper confirmed that officers had to use force."

Whatever happened to Jean Charles, the questionable circumstances surrounding his arrest infuriate Poulos and his colleagues, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Michael Smith. Jean Charles Jr. told the lawyers that in late May two white cops pulled up outside of his father's auto-body shop in East Flatbush, saying they had come to issue a summons because he had improperly displayed a certificate to operate an air compressor. According to Poulos, the cops noted that Charles had affixed a copy instead of the original to a wall in the shop.

When the younger Charles said they lived nearby and he could get the original, one of the cops replied that it was too late and wrote out a summons. Poulos says Charles "went to court on the date he was supposed to, but the police weren't there and it was put over. He returned the next day; the police still weren't there. So he went home. Apparently, it was when he didn't show on the third day that a warrant was issued for his arrest."

Poulos says that Jean Charles Jr. had accompanied his father to respond to the summons. "Two hours later, the son got a call from Brooklyn Hospital saying that his father was in a coma and needed brain surgery. As best as we can determine, something happened in the police van while they were transporting him to Criminal Court."

An ambulance report obtained by the Voice states that Charles was "unresponsive" when taken from the back of a police van. The report indicates that his blood pressure was normal.

"He has never been arrested in his life, has no history of stroke, high blood pressure, or heart disease," Poulos claims. "It's clear that something happened in the van. Even if they didn't beat him into a coma, his head was struck against something in the back seat, and they didn't even look around while driving to court. Nobody looked in the rearview mirror to see the condition of their prisoner?"

Poulos asserts that "the worst irony" is that Charles got into trouble even though he repeatedly tried to obey the law. "He went to court twice, and then to the warrant squad. He did whatever was asked of him, and now he is in a coma," the attorney laments. "Whoever heard of a warrant being issued for not answering a summons for having a photostat of a compressor certificate? It defies the imagination."

Research: W. Michelle Beckles

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