The Louima Decision


The decision by the Court of Appeals on February 28 overturning the convictions of NYPD officers Charles Schwarz, Thomas Bruder, and Thomas Wiese for their involvement in the torture of Abner Louima ironically reminded us on the last day of Black History Month of centuries of oppression and judicial injustice. With this decision, the only officer incarcerated for Louima’s brutal torture and sodomy with a broken broomstick is former officer Justin Volpe, sentenced to 30 years in December 1999.

Yet Volpe’s incarceration offers citizens cold comfort and not even a vestige of redemption for a criminal justice system that remains almost incapable of convicting police officers accused of brutalizing or killing citizens. The system did not convict Justin Volpe: mid-trial, he pled guilty and was sentenced by the judge. No doubt Volpe is cursing his decision now that the sentences of his cronies in blue have been overturned. Last week’s events suggest he would have been better off if he’d kept silent, risked conviction, and gambled on the Court of Appeals making it all go away a few years later.

While the court’s decision shocked and disgusted many citizens into an at least temporary silence and paralysis, the media spin mill immediately went into high gear. Add to the profound chill the nausea evoked by the pseudo-informed pontificating of the punditry, a parade of nonlawyers busily pronouncing the court’s decision “sound” or questioning the veracity of the victim. As if somehow it were Abner Louima’s fault—aided and abetted by Reverend Al Sharpton—that he’d been twice raped, first by the coppers and then by the courts.

Clifford Levy of The New York Times tied himself in verbal knots on NY1 in an attempt to make the case that because the courts a few weeks ago overturned the conviction of Lemrick Nelson and Charles Price for the murder of scholar Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights in 1991, the Louima decision somehow proves that the justice system is color-blind—but those who are colored aren’t having it. Efforts to compare the violent actions of four state-sanctioned police officers with the actions of two violent individuals are absurd. And the decision is certainly no cause to rest easy and ignore the dismal state of race relations in this city, even after the supposedly transforming events of 9-11. The truth is that terror has never been important in this country unless white people have felt it, too. So we can bond over the September attacks, but too many of New York’s citizens remain insensitive to the ongoing police-inspired terror that their fellow citizens experience on a daily basis.

Not much better can be said for New York’s elected officials, who have had no organized response to the decision and, for the most part, have been silent. These so-called leaders, whose salaries we pay and who are supposed to represent us, have ceded control of the issue to Al Sharpton. Problematic as Sharpton can be, he looks damn good compared to these silent freeloaders.

Leave it to the activists to tell it like it is, with Sharpton likening this decision to the infamous 1857 Dred Scott one, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, among other things, that African Americans were not citizens.

“You’re not going to ask this city to believe that PBA [Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association] lawyers and a judge don’t know what a conflict of interest is. They knew from jump,” says Richie Perez, longtime activist and coordinator of the Justice Committee of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. “These occurrences feed suspicion and paranoia, because if you indict on too high a charge, you know you won’t be able to prove that, and set the basis for appeal. These situations make people doubt if there is anyone in the justice system advocating for us. There was wrongdoing here. Someone’s got to tell me and the nation how it is that the wrongdoers got away.”

“Lord, am I glad Giuliani isn’t mayor,” comments Councilman Phil Reed. “I’d have to be out there picketing all day because he’d said something stupid. Now we can review all this in a calm and deliberative fashion. It’s certainly frustrating, because once again, if justice wasn’t denied, it is certainly delayed. The fact is, we all know somebody else was in there, so everybody’s lying. Wiese’s mea culpa that he was busy petting a puppy sounds like Dan White eating Twinkies,” Reed scoffs, adding, “And if he was out there petting a puppy while Louima was in the bathroom screaming, he ought to be in jail for that.”

New Yorkers have lived with the Louima case since August 1997, when it was first revealed that Louima, arrested outside a Brooklyn nightclub after a scuffle in which he was not a participant, had been beaten and tortured in a bathroom in Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct. In a city desensitized to or uninterested in harassment, abuse, and highly problematic killings by members of New York’s Finest, Louima’s treatment stood out for its horrific, sexualized violence. It was impossible for even the most zealous NYPD defenders to justify Louima’s treatment, although some tried. Justin Volpe’s lawyer, Marvyn Kornberg, desperately suggested before trial that it would be proven that Louima’s injuries were the result of rough homosexual sex, an allegation that would be laughable if it were not so contemptible.

Whether or not we choose to recognize it, we live in a cityscape that has for decades been littered with the dead bodies of citizens killed by the police under questionable circumstances. Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Heyward Jr. was killed in 1994 by police as he played cops and robbers with his friends in the housing complex where he lived. Anthony Baez, 29, was killed that same year by an illegal police chokehold in the Bronx after his football accidentally hit a patrol car. Hilton Vega, 21, and Anthony Rosario, 18, were killed in the Bronx in 1995 while lying facedown on the floor. Yong Xin Huang, a 16-year-old Brooklyn honor student, was shot in the head by a police officer in 1995. And the list goes on, back to Dred Scott and beyond.

The only police officer serving time for any of these killings is Francis X. Livoti, Baez’s killer. Livoti’s eventual conviction, after charges were first dismissed because of bungling by the Bronx D.A. and after acquittal by a judge in a nonjury trial, was a direct result of sustained pressure by the Baez family and a broad coalition of activists. Federal authorities finally indicted Livoti for violating Baez’s civil rights, leading to a 1998 conviction and a seven-and-a-half-year sentence.

Not much time for the taking of a life, but it beats no time, the usual in these cases. Most of those killed or brutalized by the police in the United States are young, black, Latino, or Asian. In the face of the inability of the criminal justice system to successfully prosecute police, it’s impossible to deny the perceived worthlessness of these lives. As attorney Alton Maddox said nearly two decades ago, “The criminal justice system in New York State will deal with you more harshly if you kill a dog than a black man.”

Abner Louima was watching a fight. Amadou Diallo reached for his wallet. Patrick Dorismond said no to an undercover cop’s drug solicitation. No one has been punished for the deaths of Diallo and Dorismond, and only Volpe has been held responsible for the torture of Louima. The most difficult question this decision and all the other dismissals, acquittals, and failures-to-indict raise is, what do we tell our children if those who obey the law are unalterably subject to abuse or murder by the police?

“It really does say that there is no place where you are safe, where your rights can’t be violated, whether you’re doing something or not,” says Perez. “This has a chilling effect. The killings are part of a continuum, but the bulk of that continuum is made up of those daily stop-and-frisks that young people deal with all the time. A killing is just the far end of a spectrum of constant harassment, violence, and abuse. It is a lowering of expectations for our young people and us, that we have allowed this to become a routine of life.”

For a moment it was possible to hope, if not believe, that justice had been served. The February 28 Court of Appeals decision has disabused us of that notion. Justice, to paraphrase an old saying, remains for Just Them.

Related Articles in This Issue:

Reversal of Misfortune: The Wrong Charges, the Right Decision” by Alan M. Dershowitz

The Louima Prosecutor: Pataki and D’Amato’s Pick Is Unqualified and Tainted” by Wayne Barrett