By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Citing the gag order imposed on her by the magistrate, Roper-Simpson refused to discuss her long-running dispute with Louima, Cochran, Scheck, and Neufeld. Her attorney, K.C. Okoli, declined persistent requests for an interview. Neither Cochran, Neufeld, nor Scheck, who share an office in Greenwich Village, returned a Voice call for comment. But the Voice has learned that seven months ago Roper-Simpson notified Louima and his legal team that she had filed a lien against "any money" Louima intended to collect as compensation for being severely beaten and sexually assaulted by police.
Roper-Simpson is suing for "professional services rendered" to Louima in the aftermath of the attack. She and Figeroux were part of an original three-member legal team, led by Thomas, to whom Louima first told his horror story. It is the second such lien to tie up Louima's millions. On March 3, 1998, a month after they resigned from Louima's legal team, Thomas and Figeroux laid claim to money from any impending settlement or jury award. Their one-page document did not reveal details about their action, but at the time Thomas told the Voicethat a conflict arose because he and his colleagues felt that Cochran, Scheck, and Neufeld had improperly entered the explosive case. Thomas described Cochran as a racial ambulance chaser who may have "broken ethical canons." He said that Cochran was not entitled to a cut of any award or settlement.
"In my judgment, we did everything right," Thomas asserted in an interview prior to the judge's gag order. "We made Abner Louima a household name, and that's how Johnnie Cochran knew about him. The sympathy Abner received was based on the campaign [we waged] for Abner Louima."
The city agreed to pay $7.125 million, while the PBA will pay $1.625 million. Louima's lawyers will claim about $2.9 million of the $8.75 million total. The remaining $5.8 million will be paid out to Louima and his children over the next 25 years. He originally sued for $155 million.
Reverend Al Sharpton, who helped drum up outrage over the torture, "has reservations" about the settlement. Sharpton, who is serving a 90-day sentence for his role in a protest against naval bombing exercises in Vieques, told the Voice that shortly before the case was settled, Louima visited him at the federal jail in Brooklyn and "asked for my blessing prior to agreeing to take the money." According to Sharpton, Louima was skimpy on details about eleventh-hour negotiations, citing the judge's gag order. He said he remembered Louima saying the settlement would be the largest ever paid out by the city in a police brutality case and that the PBA might crack under pressure from his attorneys and disavow the blue wall of silence.
Last March, black activists, including several leaders in Brooklyn's Haitian community, criticized Louima for agreeing to an earlier settlement close to $9 million without insisting on reforms within the police system. Louima backed away from the deal. In his original lawsuit seeking the reforms, Louima charged that police officers "conspired to create a blue wall of silence and lied to obstruct justice" and that the PBA "condoned an environment in which police officers believed they would be insulated from prosecution."
The blue wall of silence refers to police officers who protect each other by not cooperating with investigators. Louima also complained of the "48-hour rule," which allows officers under investigation not to speak to anyone except their attorneys for two days. The rule is part of the NYPD contract with the PBA. Opponents of the 48-hour rule have said the period gives officers time to get their stories straight and confer with counsel while the investigation cools.
Before Louima left the jailhouse, Sharpton told him that "the goals of the lawsuit seem OK to me." Sharpton said that he gave his approval, "anticipating a favorable outcome." Now Sharpton thinks that "Abner should have stood his ground, because it appears that the PBA has conceded nothing" in response to his demand for changes in the way cops handle black and Latino suspects.
Louima's lawyers claimed victory, taking credit for extracting reforms from the city and the union to eliminate what Louima's suit called an "environment in which the most violent police officers believed they would be insulated" from prosecution. Sounding almost like a lawyer, Louima himself told reporters that his case prompted the city to pull the '48-hour rule off the table in pending contract talks with the PBA. (The NYPD has ended the 48-hour rule for sergeants, lieutenants, and captains, and has said it is attempting to take it out of the contract under negotiation for police officers.) He also said his case pushed the PBA to hire outside experts for formal training of its union officials and adopt a system for protecting the anonymity of whistle-blowers. Attorneys for the city and the PBA argued the reforms would have been implemented anyway. But it was not clear exactly what would change concerning officers accused of abuse as a result of the settlement.
Despite efforts to downplay the fact, it is the first time a police union has been forced to compensate a victim of police brutality, Cochran, Neufeld, and Scheck continued to hail the case as "mechanism for social and legal reform" that could be used in other cities where brutality is an issue. "This case is a watershed for police brutality and how to remedy it," Neufeld said at a news conference. "You use the case as a bully pulpit."