Stay of Execution
If the Bush administration fails to take control of the New York Police Department under Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the department may never be held accountable for violating the civil rights of African Americans. Moreover, the exonerated killers of Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Malcolm Ferguson, and other victims of alleged police lawlessness could escape federal indictment. But according to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, the fault to some extent lies with a black prosecutor.
Saying he no longer felt bound by a vow of confidentiality, Reverend Al Sharpton claims that during a meeting he and other civil rights leaders had with Reno in August, he demanded to know why she seemed to be dragging her feet on their call to shackle the allegedly abusive NYPD. Reno, he recalls, attributed part of the blame for the holdup to Loretta Lynch, the black then acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, whom some African American community activists have accused of kowtowing to Giuliani by not pushing for the federal takeover of the nation's largest police force.
"Miss Reno's response was that there had been no request from the Eastern District [which covers Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Long Island] that the Justice Department proceed with a federal takeover," says Sharpton, leader of the Harlem-based National Action Network. "We were shocked because our position was that they'd already found that there was a 'pattern and practice' of police brutality. I said, 'How many atrocities do you need before you see a pattern to intervene?' Clearly we felt there was a pattern."
Alan Vinegrad, a spokesman for Lynch, declined comment.
"I think that Loretta Lynch is a weak prosecutor," declares Carl W. Thomas, the heroic attorney who catapulted the Abner Louima police torture case into the public spotlight. "She is to be blamed for not aggressively pursuing blatant police misconduct."
Says Charles Barron, the outspoken Brooklyn-based expert on the dynamics of black leadership: "I just don't buy it. I am not saying that the local U.S. attorney did all that she could have done, but Janet Reno has the power and the authority to stop anyone below her from standing in her way of putting the NYPD into receivership. If she and President Clinton have the real will to do it, it can be done."
Last week, as the activists scrambled to assess the impact a Bush administration would have on high-profile civil rights cases stagnating in U.S. Department of Justice files, Giuliani exhaled: The curse of Abner Louima finally appeared to be lifting.
Only last month, Giuliani was practically on bended knee, pleading with Reno not to appoint a federal monitor to oversee the NYPD. There are several ongoing federal inquiries into racial profiling tactics that allegedly led to fatal shootings and beatings of African Americans. Unable to wrangle concessions from Giuliani and then police commissioner Howard Safir, Lynch had threatened to file a lawsuit against the city, charging it with civil rights violations and demanding broad changes, including the dreaded federal oversight.
After Giuliani protested and stonewalled, Lynch allegedly backed off. By following the rules of engagement as dictated by Giuliani, black activists contend, Lynch may have set back efforts to break the stranglehold that the mayor's paramilitary cops have on African American communities. Now these activists fear that a Bush administration might be more sympathetic to Giuliani's claim that the investigations were politically inspired by the Clinton administration and would pull back on federal intervention that began after Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was tortured in the 70th Precinct station house in 1997.
That Loretta Lynch has not, at this late stage in her investigation, sought authorization from Janet Reno to sue the city has provoked a more radical response from some in the legal community. Carl Thomas, Louima's former attorney, angrily accuses Lynch of shielding the NYPD.
He suggests that Lynch was not gung-ho about "arresting the force" because she wanted to impress conservatives in the Senate who were considering whether to elevate her to U.S. attorney. Last year, after U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter resigned, Senator Charles Schumer asked Clinton to nominate Lynch for the plum assignment, saying that she "has proven throughout her career that she is tough, fair, and honest." Lynch, who had been Carter's chief assistant, was appointed interim U.S. attorney pending a confirmation by the Senate. Last Friday, as president-elect George W. Bush inched closer to the White House, the Senate confirmed Lynch's appointment.
Insists Thomas: "She was trying to placate Giuliani conservatives, who it is clear are against the appointment of a federal monitor. Giuliani and his cohorts believe that the police department is doing a fine job, that the Abner Louima case was an aberration. Lynch has bowed to conservatives who are not going to allow Giuliani's legacy to be soiled by a takeover of the NYPD." Thomas emphasizes that Lynch should have filed her lawsuit as soon as Giuliani balked at federal oversight. "Racial profiling and police brutality have been dealt a knockout blow because of Loretta Lynch's failure as a prosecutor," the attorney asserts.
When reminded that Lynch had presided successfully over the prosecution of some of the officers involved in the attack on Louima, Thomas argues that this accomplishment was tainted after Lynch allegedly showed her soft side for one of Louima's torturers. In all, four officers have been convicted in three trials and two have pleaded guilty. Officer Justin Volpe, who claimed he was driven by "animal rage" to sodomize Louima with a broken broomstick, is serving 30 years in prison. Before Officer Charles Schwarz was sentenced in June to 15 years for holding down Louima and then conspiring to cover up the attack, powerful right-wing pols like Staten Island Borough president Guy Molinari loudly proclaimed Schwarz's innocence. In a shocking move, Lynch's office asked Judge Eugene Nickerson to go easy on Schwarz.
Again, Lynch's office declined comment.
According to Thomas, Lynch should have asked for the maximum sentence. "She disregarded the jury's decision, giving credence to the claim that Schwarz was innocent," he charges. "Schwarz spat in their faces by claiming that he was absolutely innocent. They turned around and still joined in a motion for the judge to depart downward at his sentencing. This, to me, shows tremendous weakness on Loretta Lynch's part." Schwarz has filed an appeal, accusing prosecutors of intimidating and coaching witnesses.
Reverend Sharpton recalls that after Patrick Dorismond was gunned down by an undercover cop in March, he and Reverend Herbert Daughtry met with Loretta Lynch, who told them that she was vigorously pursuing plans to monitor the NYPD, despite reports that negotiations with the city had been deadlocked. Lynch, he says, assured them that she was doing everything she could.
But picture the mayor scurrying back to a friendlier U.S. Department of Justice armed with more fuzzy cop statistics, a new plan to crack down on his permanent suspects, African Americans, and the racist declaration by Heather Mac Donald (controversial analyst for the right-wing Manhattan Institute for Policy Research) that "the NYPD isto its detrimentawash in the spurious 'diversity' ideology." Lynch, Thomas offers, has contributed to this nightmare scenario by giving the NYPD a stay of execution: Under Bush, he predicts, the department will get away with murder. "Justice for Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, and other victims is doomed," he swears.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter