Opening Statements in Louima Case
May. 04, 1999
NEW YORK (AP) _ Four white police officers conspired to violate the civil rights of a black Haitian immigrant, with two of them turning a police station bathroom into a bloody torture chamber, a prosecutor charged this morning.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Thompson, making his opening statement in the highly charged brutality trial, described in graphic detail how a handcuffed Abner Louima was battered inside the 70th Precinct in Brooklyn.
The Aug. 9, 1997, beating, which left Louima hospitalized with severe internal injuries, drew national attention and prompted widespread anti-police brutality demonstrations in the city.
``Inside that bathroom, Abner Louima suffered more than a beating,'' Thompson told the jury of seven men and five women. ``Ladies and gentlemen, Abner Louima was tortured inside that bathroom.''
As part of the brutal attack, Officer Justin Volpe allegedly rammed a wooden stick into Louima's rectum, tearing up the victim's insides, while officer Charles Schwarz allegedly held him down. The stick, smeared with blood and feces, was then smashed into Louima's mouth, the prosecutor said.
Volpe sat impassively at the defense table with his four co-defendants as Thompson pointed him out as ``the man who violated Abner Louima's civil rights and his body.''
Defense attorneys were expected to begin their opening statements later today.
According to the prosecutor, the officers became enraged because they thought that Louima had sucker-punched Volpe during a brawl outside a Brooklyn nightclub. The attacker was actually Louima's cousin, who was wearing a similar outfit, the prosecutor said.
The case ``is not about white vs. black, or about the New York City police department,'' Thompson said. ``This trial is about an escalation of violence that started on the streets of Brooklyn and ended on the floor of the 70th Precinct.''
U.S. District Judge Eugene Nickerson gave preliminary instructions to the anonymous jury _ made up of eight whites, three Hispanics and one black _ this morning before opening statements.
The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.
Volpe, 27; Schwarz, 33; and fellow officers Thomas Bruder, 33, and Thomas Wiese, 35, are charged with violating Louima's civil rights. The four allegedly beat him after his arrest outside the nightclub before the second incident in the bathroom in which only Volpe and Schwarz are charged.
A fifth officer, Sgt. Michael Bellomo, 37, is charged with helping cover up the attacks. If convicted, Bellomo, Bruder and Wiese face up to 10 years in prison. Volpe and Schwarz could receive a maximum of life in prison without parole because of the sexual nature of the alleged bathroom attack.
Louima, who has recovered from his injuries and is expected to be the government's star witness, has alleged in a multimillion-dollar civil suit that police used racial slurs during the assault. But in picking a jury, the judge repeatedly reminded prospective jurors that the federal indictments against the officers made no mention of race.
``They haven't been accused of racism at all,'' the judge said.
Defense attorney Stephen Worth signaled Monday that he plans to attack Louima's credibility by arguing that his story was influenced by the controversial activist the Rev. Al Sharpton, who rushed to his hospital bedside, and famed defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr., who is representing him in the civil suit.
Worth told the judge he wanted to note in opening arguments that Cochran was present when prosecutors took Louima into the courtroom one Saturday for coaching.
But the judge ruled that Worth could not mention Sharpton and Cochran or that his courtroom was used to prepare a witness.
``If I had known about it, it wouldn't have been held here,'' the judge said.