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5 N.Y. cops face federal charges in Haitian torture case

Abner Louima
Abner Louima  
In this story: February 26, 1998
Web posted at: 6:41 p.m. EST (2341 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Five New York City police officers have been indicted on federal civil rights charges in the case of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was allegedly beaten and sodomized with a stick by police last August.

Louima was arrested after a scuffle outside a Brooklyn nightclub and taken to the police station where he was allegedly attacked. He was hospitalized for two months with a ruptured colon.

The 12-count indictment charges officers Justin Volpe, Thomas Bruder, Charles Schwarz and Thomas Wiese with conspiring to deny Louima his constitutional rights by physically assaulting him while in police custody.

Federal charges carry heavier penalties

Carter
U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter  

The four were charged with assaulting Louima in a police car after his arrest. Volpe and Schwarz allegedly also attacked Louima later in the bathroom of the precinct station house, kicking him and shoving a stick into his rectum and mouth while his hands were cuffed behind his back.

The fifth officer, Michael Bellomo, is accused of helping the others cover up the alleged beating, as well as an alleged assault on another Haitian immigrant, Patrick Antoine, the same night.

Bellomo was indicted on federal charges of falsely arresting Antoine outside the Brooklyn nightclub, then conspiring with Volpe to conceal an "unlawful assault" on Antoine by Volpe.

State charges were already pending against Volpe, Bruder, Schwarz and Wiese, but the federal civil rights charges carry heavier penalties than state charges. Also, federal rules generally make it easier to introduce evidence.

Dropping state charges 'the right thing to do'

Club
Louima was arrested after a scuffle outside this nightclub  

Charles Hynes, the Kings County district attorney, said he would move to dismiss the state charges so that "the appropriate punishment for ... these vicious acts ... will be available in the federal system."

Hynes said that deferring to the federal charges "is the right thing to do."

Volpe and Schwarz, who are accused of violating Louima's civil rights by sexually abusing him, could get life in prison in a federal case rather than a maximum of 25 years if convicted of aggravated sexual abuse under state law.

Because the officers charged in the assault are white and Louima is black, the attack has become a rallying cry for those who contend police are abusive, particularly to minorities. It was an issue in the mayoral campaign and the subject of protest marches.

"This indictment is a reflection of our commitment to bring to justice any police officer who abuses the public trust through the use of unjustified punitive force," said U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter.

"Further, the investigation and prosecution signals our determination to hold accountable any officer who fails to protect, fails to report or fails to cooperate with investigators when a criminal or civil rights offense is committed in their presence or on their watch."

Police commissioner defends NYPD

"I think that any human being should feel embarrassment that one human being would do this act to another if the allegations are found to be true," said New York Police Commissioner Howard Safir.

Safir said, however, that it was the act of a "small number" of NYPD officers and that the rest of the force should not be painted with a "broad brush."

"(The officers are) going to be held accountable. And I'm ashamed that any human being would do this to another, but I'm certainly not ashamed of the NYPD," he said.

Louima and Antoine were initially charged with assault, but those charges were eventually dropped. Thursday's indictments were issued by a grand jury after months of testimony.

During the federal investigation, Louima changed his legal team from local attorneys to a high-profile team lead by Johnnie Cochran and Barry Scheck.

"We have full confidence in the federal government and look to the future for the trial," said Sanford Rubenstein, one of Louima's lawyers.

 
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