(NEW YORK) - A federal appeals court overturned the convictions of three white police officers in the Abner Louima torture case Thursday, finding insufficient evidence they obstructed justice.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan reversed the conviction of Charles Schwarz, 36, who was accused of taking part in one of the worst police brutality cases in U.S. history. The three-judge panel, which was unanimous, returned the case to a lower court for a possible retrial.
The appeals court also overturned convictions against Schwarz, Thomas Wiese, 37, and Thomas Bruder, 34, on charges that they helped cover up the crime.
The ruling did not affect the guilty plea of the main attacker, former Officer Justin Volpe, who is serving 30 years in prison after admitting he sodomized Louima with a broken broomstick in a police station bathroom.
Prosecutors said a handcuffed Louima was pinned down and brutally assaulted following his arrest in a melee outside a Brooklyn nightclub Aug. 9, 1997. Charges against Louima were later dropped.
Louima suffered a ruptured bladder and colon in the attack and spent two months in the hospital. The attack caused the Justice Department to study whether the New York Police Department fosters brutality through lax discipline of wayward officers.
The appeals court said Schwarz's convictions for civil rights violations must be thrown out and a new trial ordered because he was denied effective assistance of counsel and because the jury was exposed to prejudicial information during deliberations.
``The jurors asserted that despite their best efforts to avoid publicity they had learned from one juror during jury deliberations that Volpe had pleaded guilty to assaulting Louima in the bathroom and had indicated that he had done this assault with another police officer,'' the ruling stated.
The court also held that convictions against all three men at a second trial for conspiracy to obstruct justice must be dismissed for insufficient evidence. It was not immediately clear whether prosecutors would seek new trials in those cases.
The government failed to prove that the defendants intended to obstruct a federal grand jury, the court ruled. The three-judge panel said the government relied nearly exclusively on Bruder's allegedly false statements to federal investigators.
But Bruder did not know the statements would be repeated to a federal grand jury, the court found. Thus, the judges said, there is insufficient evidence to support a conspiracy.
``It's a sweet day when you can show the government was wrong and it was wrong from the beginning,'' said Stuart London, Bruder's attorney.
Schwarz was sentenced in June to 15 1/2 years; Wiese and Bruder received five-year sentences for the conspiracy conviction but have been free on bond pending appeal.
Schwarz and Volpe were tried for conspiracy to deprive Louima of his civil rights by sexually assaulting him while Schwarz, Bruder and Wiese faced conspiracy to obstruct justice charges in a separate trial.
Civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton called the ruling ``a shocking display of how the judicial system continues to fail to protect citizens from police abuse.'' He said the court ``in effect says that Volpe acted alone when that is not only not the evidence, but physically impossible.''
Sanford Rubenstein, a lawyer for Louima, said that if there is a new trial for Schwarz, ``we look to the federal government to retry the case and we will be supportive of their efforts as we have in the past.''
Joseph Tacopina, attorney for Wiese, said: ``Justice has been served. It was clearly the right decision. Hopefully now Thomas Wiese, Thomas Bruder and Charles Schwarz can resume their normal lives with this and even possibly return to the force.''
Zachary Carter, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, declined to comment, as did the New York Police Department.
A telephone call to Schwarz's lawyers was not immediately returned.
In their appeal, lawyers for Schwarz had argued that his attorney in both trials had a conflict of interest as he also represented the police union, thereby hindering him from deflecting blame to another officer.
The Louima case and other high-profile incidents _ including the 1999 death of an unarmed West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, in a hail of 41 bullet fired by four white officers _ ignited protests accusing police of singling out minorities for abuse, often through racial-profiling.
Louima filed a lawsuit against the city and the police union, which was settled in July after months of hard-fought negotiations. The city and union agreed to pay Louima and his lawyers $8.7 million in the largest settlement ever in a New York City police brutality case.