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Louima case takes new twist

With last week's $8.75-million settlement of the lawsuit by police torture victim Abner Louima, and with two cops serving long prison terms for the attack on Louima, you would think this case that both convulsed and shamed New York City would finally be over.

But it's not. Because it appears very likely that one of the imprisoned police officers _ Charles Schwarz, who is serving 15 years in a federal penitentiary _ did not participate in the attack.

Both Nat Hentoff, the highly respected columnist at the Village Voice, and CBS's 60 Minutes have done investigative pieces that are quite convincing in their contention that Schwarz was not in the station house bathroom with Officer Justin Volpe when Volpe tortured Louima with a broken broomstick. Volpe is serving 30 years in prison.

Louima was brutalized after his arrest in Brooklyn in 1997. But all four officers involved in the arrest have said that Officer Thomas Wiese, not Charles Schwarz, was with Volpe (either in the bathroom, or just outside it) when the attack occurred. The four are: Volpe, Schwarz, Thomas Bruder (who was Volpe's partner at the time) and Thomas Wiese himself.

Louima said from the beginning that there were two officers in the bathroom. He said one brutalized him with the stick while the other held him down. When he was shown a series of photos soon after the attack, he identified Volpe immediately. But he could not identify Schwarz. He was not shown a photo of Wiese. Even in person, at the trial two years later, Louima was unable to identify Schwarz.

When Volpe interrupted the trial and pleaded guilty, he insisted to prosecutors that Wiese, not Schwarz, had been with him in the bathroom. But that information was not heard by the jury that went on to convict Schwarz of aiding and abetting Volpe. Several jurors have since said they would have acquitted Schwarz if they had been aware of Volpe's statements.

It is believed that Schwarz was arrested and prosecuted because another police officer, Eric Turetsky, said he saw Schwarz walking Louima toward the bathroom on the night of the attack. But Schwarz and Wiese resemble each other. An honest mistake could have been made.

Wiese has always denied participating in the attack. But when Wiese saw investigators zeroing in on Schwarz, he told them _ against the wishes of his own attorney _ that they were going after the wrong man.

In an interview for 60 Minutes, Ed Bradley said to Wiese, "You knew that you were the second man in the bathroom."

Wiese replied, "Yes." He added, "I knew that police Officer Schwarz was not there. I knew that police Officer Schwarz participated in no kind of assault whatsoever."

But prosecutors wouldn't bite. They insisted that both Wiese and Volpe were lying, and it didn't seem to bother them that Louima was never able to identify the man who supposedly had walked him to the bathroom and held him down while Volpe brutalized him.

On Thursday, Schwarz's lawyerwill argue his client's case before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He hopes to have the conviction overturned and a new trial ordered.

I don't believe for a minute that Charles Schwarz was without fault in the attack on Abner Louima. Louima was beaten and otherwise mistreated before he was savagely assaulted by Volpe. There is no evidence that Schwarz intervened on Louima's behalf.

But he is serving 15 years on a conviction that was based on the belief that he joined in Volpe's attack on Louima.

On Thursday the 2nd Circuit will get a chance to bring the truth into sharper focus, and that is the only way justice ever prevails.

Bob Herbert is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times News Service