New York Times
February 18, 2000
New York Times
Ex-Officer Details Surge of Rage as He Began Attack on Louima
By ALAN FEUER
The former police officer sentenced to 30 years in prison for torturing Abner Louima in the bathroom of a Brooklyn station house took the witness stand yesterday and described in detail a simmering rage that led to the attack and an anguish that eventually caused him to come forward and confess.
In more than two hours of searing testimony in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, the former officer, Justin A.
Volpe, delivered an emotional account of how he pinned Mr. Louima against the bathroom wall and confronted him face to face. Then, he said, in a mire of confusion and anger over what he said was a defiant tone by Mr. Louima, he rammed a broken broomstick into the defenseless man's rectum.
"I held the stick in front of his face to say 'look what happened, look what happened,' " Mr. Volpe recalled, adding that he repeated the phrase using an expletive, " 'look what you made me do,' and he didn't respond, he didn't say anything. I threw the stick down and I picked him up and escorted him out of the bathroom."
Mr. Volpe was testifying at the trial of three other officers accused of conspiring to cover up the attack. He said that the one officer, Charles Schwarz, never took part in the assault and he stunned the gallery to the point of silence by saying that another officer, Thomas Wiese, stood by and did nothing as Mr. Louima was tortured.
In previous statements, Officer Wiese has said that he walked into the bathroom moments after the attack and discovered Mr. Volpe standing alone with a stick in his hand as Mr. Louima sobbed at his feet. Mr. Volpe's testimony yesterday was the first time that anyone has said under oath that Officer Wiese was inside the bathroom throughout the attack.
Mr. Schwarz was convicted of participating in the torture and faces a life sentence. He is appealing.
But more mesmerizing to the jury and the packed courtroom yesterday was Mr. Volpe's excruciating account of the brutal assault. At its height, he asserted that Mr. Schwarz, who was convicted of being his accomplice, was an innocent man. His motivation for coming forth, he said, was to clear his conscience.
"Two months ago, I was sentenced to 30 years in prison," Mr. Volpe said, swallowing his words and offering his palms in contrition. "Part of reclaiming my life is to tell the truth about what happened that night." Haltingly, he continued: "I can't live with myself and do my time in peace by knowing that another man is paying for the crimes that I did. It has nothing to do with friendship. It just has to do with doing what's right in my heart."
From the outset, the government has argued that Mr. Schwarz held Mr. Louima down while he was attacked and that he then conspired with Officer Wiese and another officer on trial, Thomas Bruder, to get himself off the hook. The defense says there was no conspiracy to hide the involvement of Mr. Schwarzbecause he was never involved.
Even if Officer Wiese now faces some degree of public ignominy because of Mr. Volpe's testimony, it is unlikely to damage his chances in the trial because the jury can only consider whether the three defendants lied about Mr. Schwarz.
Likewise, federal prosecutors are unlikely to enter a new charge against Officer Wiese because they consider Mr. Volpe an untrustworthy witness who has previously lied under oath.
Despite Mr. Volpe's damning testimony, Officer Wiese's lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, decided not to conduct a cross-examination.
"The only issue in this case is whether Charles Schwarz was in the bathroom and the defendants lied about it," Mr. Tacopina said. "In that regard, I had nothing to ask Mr. Volpe."
Ronald Fischetti, Mr. Schwarz's lawyer, said his client was happy with Mr. Volpe's testimony.
"We have said in openings and maintained throughout the trial that Chuck Schwarz was never in the bathroom," he said. "Justin Volpe was there, and now he has testified to that."
Mr. Volpe walked into the courtroom at 10:20 a.m. dressed in a light blue jailhouse smock, his husky frame somewhat eroded by his time in prison.
Almost immediately, Judge Eugene H. Nickerson, who is presiding in the case, complained that Mr. Volpe was improperly dressed for court.
"Doesn't he have other clothes?" the judge asked the defense lawyers, who called Mr. Volpe to the stand.
"These are my clothes, your honor," Mr. Volpe said, apparently cowed.
A half-hour later, Mr. Volpe returned to the courtroom dressed in an ill-fitting blue jacket, gray pants and a paisley tie. He was sworn in by the court and under questioning by Mr. Fischetti offered his dramatic account of the events on the night of Aug. 9, 1997.
Mr. Volpe said that while responding to a call that night at Club Rendezvous, a Haitian dance hall in Flatbush, Brooklyn, he was punched in the head and knocked to the ground by a man he thought was Mr. Louima.
Mr. Louima was arrested and taken to the 70th Precinct station house, Mr. Volpe said.
Back at the police station, Mr. Volpe said, he took off his bulletproof vest, his gun belt and and other equipment and went into an empty room to be alone. He wanted to unwind from the fracas on the street, he said, but he could not put the scuffle out of his mind. "I was just collecting myself," he said, "and I started to become angry."
There was a broom in the empty room, he said, and he picked it up and snapped the handle in half. "I was going to take that stick and threaten him with it or possibly even hit him with it," Mr. Volpe testified. "I took that stick and put it in the bathroom."
Moments later, Mr. Volpe returned to the front desk and took custody of Mr. Louima, whose pants and underwear were down around his knees, he said. (He later testified that he did not see who had pulled down Mr. Louima's pants.) He led the prisoner into the bathroom, he said, then pushed Mr. Louima up against the wall and stood in front of him face to face.
"Why did you curse at me on the street and why did you punch me?"he said he asked Mr. Louima.
Mr. Louima cursed in response, Mr. Volpe said. He threw a punch at Mr. Louima's chest. Then, "I grabbed him by his arms," Mr. Volpe said, "and I threw him to the ground."
Mr. Louima was face down on the bathroom floor, his head near a toilet, Mr. Volpe said. "At this point, I had a lot of emotions that I never, ever felt before in my life," he said. "I felt frustrated, very confused and I didn't know how to proceed with the situation."
Moments later, Mr. Volpe found the stick where he had left it in a garbage can, he said. He placed the stick near Mr. Louima's buttocks, thinking, as he described it, "that that would scare him somehow."
Twice while they were standing, Mr. Volpe said, he had asked Mr. Louima to apologize for striking him on the street. Both times, he added, Mr. Louima did not apologize.
On the floor, "I asked him one more time, do you have anything to say," Mr. Volpe testified, pausing now, releasing breath. Mr. Louima mumbled something, something aggressive, Mr. Volpe said -- "possibly a curse." Then he went on, "And I tensed up and I pushed the stick into his rectum."
On cross-examination, Lauren Resnick, an assistant United States attorney, suggested that Mr. Volpe was lying about Mr. Schwarz and that he was seeking to implicate Officer Wiese out of revenge. Early in the investigation, Officer Wiese had approached the authorities to give a statement about Mr. Volpe but was rebuffed when he failed a lie detector test.
But Mr. Volpe said he was hoping to put an end to the case once and for all. "I am telling the truth about what happened that night to clear it up," he said, "not just for me, but for the officers, for Louima and his family, for the newspapers and for everyone so that they can go with their lives and there would be some closure.
"Who better to do that than me? I'm the man that assaulted Mr. Louima."
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