Last week’s federal appeals court decisions undoing three police officers’ convictions in connection with the 1997 attack on Abner Louima in Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct raised many questions and answered none.
There is concern, for example, that the court’s action reverses any small progress toward a political climate in which police are not above the law and do not have free rein to perpetrate racist abuse and violence against working people.
The basic facts in the case, however, remained unchanged.
Louima, a Haitian immigrant, was falsely arrested and brutally tortured. The conviction of Justin Volpe, who pleaded guilty as the main attacker and is serving a 30-year sentence, remains unaffected. The civil court award to Louima, whose wounds almost cost him his life, will not change.
Changed forever are the lives of Louima, his family, and all whose right to equal protection under the law has been undermined.
From the nature of the attack, Volpe could not have acted alone. Charles Schwartz, the only other person tried for attacking Louima, will be retried on that charge.
Because his lawyer also represented the police union, the appeals court found that a “conflict of interest” denied Schwartz adequate representation. Another perpetrator, Thomas Wiese, was identified by Volpe but never tried for the attack itself.
There is a strong probability that others assisted in torturing Louima, either hands on, by taking him to the area where they knew he would be attacked, or as lookouts.
The crimes against Louima were covered up and that obstruction of justice continues. In overturning the convictions of Schwartz, Thomas Bruder and Wiese on the narrow charge of lying to obstruct the grand jury (for which they cannot be retried), the court did not say that they did not lie. In fact, the appeals decision states that, had the charge been that the three police officers did agree to mislead both state and federal investigators, “We have no doubt that such a jury verdict would be upheld.”
Such misconduct is more than sufficient cause to bar any of the three from returning to the police force.
The shifting net of fabrications, misstatements and outright lies made to various investigators by many different witnesses make it obvious that there is a cover-up.
How do we uncover the truth and seek justice? Some say that we have to accept the results of the judicial system “even when we don’t like them.”
But our laws and legal procedures are not perfect products of divine origin. Even good laws can be subverted.
The passage of time and the complexity of the cases make justice difficult but not impossible. The pervasive cover-up demands a new investigation.
We propose the assignment of a new, more independent prosecutor and a new grand jury. It would have a chance of sorting out the lies and bringing new indictments that are properly drawn to avoid loopholes for criminals.
A new grand jury (or the state bar association) can investigate the conduct of Schwartz’ first lawyer. Is he so incompetent or so greedy that he could not bring it to the attention of the judge when he could not represent both Schwartz and the police union?
Or did he deliberately create a conflict of interest to provide the basis for the appeal?
Only an independent investigation can trace the origins of the crimes against Abner Louima and the cover-ups upward through the ranks of the police department and the Giuliani administration.
An effective grand jury could not only bring some justice in this case but could also propose corrective action to help prevent such crimes in the future.
It is the responsibility of elected officials, candidates for office, community and labor leaders and all who want justice to make this their personal, public demand. It is our responsibility to help them see their duty and to watch the procedure like a hawk.
Bill Davis is New York State organizer of the Communist Party USA.