Abner Louima (b. 1966 in Thomassin, Haiti) is a Haitian who was assaulted, brutalized and forcibly sodomized with the handle of a plunger by New York City police officers after being arrested outside a Brooklyn nightclub in 1997.
Background and incident
In 1997, 30-year-old Abner Louima was married, had one child, and had been living in Brooklyn for the previous six years. Although he had trained as an electrical engineer in Haiti, Louima worked as a security guard in a water-and-sewage plant in Flatlands, Brooklyn.
On August 9, 1997, Louima visited Club Rendez-Vous, a popular nightclub in East Flatbush. Late in the night, he and several other men interceded in a fight between two women. The police were called and several officers from the 70th Precinct were dispatched to the scene. There was a confrontation between the police, patrons and bystanders involved in the scuffle outside the club. The responding patrol officers included Justin Volpe, Charles Schwarz, Thomas Bruder, and Thomas Wiese, among others. In the ensuing scuffle, Volpe was struck by a "sucker-punch" and identified Louima as his assailant. Volpe arrested Louima on charges of disorderly conduct, obstructing government administration, and resisting arrest. Volpe later admitted he was mistaken about Louima being his assailant.
The arresting officers beat Louima with their fists, nightsticks, and hand-held police radios on the ride to the station. On arriving at the station house, he was strip-searched and put in a holding cell. The beating continued later, culminating with Louima being sexually assaulted in a bathroom at the 70th Precinct station house in Brooklyn. Volpe kicked Louima in the testicles, then, while Louima's hands were cuffed behind his back, he first grabbed onto and squeezed his testicles and then sodomized him with a plunger. According to trial testimony, Volpe then walked through the precinct holding the bloody, excrement-stained instrument in his hand, bragging to a police sergeant that he "took a man down tonight."
Louima's teeth were also badly damaged in the attack by having the plunger handle jammed into his mouth. He testified to the presence of a second officer in the bathroom helping Volpe in the assault but he could not positively identify him. The identity of the second attacker became a point of serious contention during the trial and appeals. Louima also initially claimed that the officers involved in the attack called him a racial slur and shouted, "This is Giuliani-time" during the beating. Louima later recanted this claim, and the reversal was used by defense lawyers to cast doubt on the entirety of his testimony.
The day after the incident, Louima was taken to the emergency room at Coney Island Hospital. Escorting officers explained away his serious injuries being a result of "abnormal homosexual activities". An emergency room nurse, Magalie Laurent, suspecting the nature of Louima's extreme injuries were not the result of gay sex, notified Louima's family and the Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau of the likelihood of sexual assault and battery. The attack left Louima with severe internal damage to his colon and bladder that required three major operations to repair. He was hospitalized for two months after the incident.
The incident provoked outrage among the Haitian and other minority communities in New York City, as well as nationally. On August 29, 1997, an estimated 7,000 demonstrators marched on to the New York City Hall and the 70th Precinct station house where the attack took place. The march was dubbed "Day of Outrage Against Police Brutality and Harassment."
The Abner Louima case was mentioned in the 1998 Amnesty International report on the United States of America among several other cases of reported police brutality, torture and abuse. Amnesty International also uses the incident as a case study on a treatise in the campaign against torture.
NYPD officer Justin Volpe initially pleaded not guilty to several counts of violating Louima's civil rights, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to police. Midway through the trial, Volpe changed his plea to guilty, confessing to having sodomized Louima. Despite the fact that Louima had several broken teeth, Volpe denied that he ever struck Louima in the mouth with the stick and claimed that he only put it very close to Louima's mouth. Volpe also admitted that he had threatened Louima's life. On December 13, 1999, Volpe was sentenced to 30 years in prison without the possibility of parole, a $525 fine and restitution in the amount of $277,495.
Charles Schwarz was convicted on June 27, 2000 for helping Volpe assault Louima in the bathroom and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. At the time of his conviction, there were numerous questions raised about whether he could receive a fair trial in the highly charged atmosphere. Volpe identified Thomas Wiese, not Schwarz, as the second man in a recorded interview on news show 60 Minutes, a fact not brought up in the trial. The conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which found that Schwarz was denied a fair trial. However, in 2002 he pleaded guilty to a perjury charge for testifying that he did not lead Louima to the bathroom, and was sentenced to five years in prison. His request for leniency was rejected on March 30, 2006. He was released to a halfway house in February 2007 with plans to move to the northern United States to work as a carpenter.
Three other NYPD officers, Thomas Bruder, Michael Bellomo and Thomas Wiese were indicted for their involvement in trying to cover up the assault. On March 9, 2000, Thomas Wiese and Thomas Bruder along with Charles Schwarz were convicted on the charge of conspiracy to obstruct a federal investigation into the assault on Louima, but their conviction was reversed by a federal appeals court in February 2002 on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Michael Bellomo was found not guilty of trying to cover up the beating of Louima and that of another Haitian immigrant by Volpe earlier that evening.
Louima's subsequent civil suit represented by attorney Sanford Rubenstein against the City of New York ended in a settlement of $8.75 million on July 30, 2001, the largest police brutality settlement in New York City history. After legal fees, Louima collected approximately $5.8 million.
In February 2003, Abner Louima visited his family still living in Haiti. There he discussed the setting up of the Abner Louima Foundation, a nonprofit organization with the hopes to raise money to build a community center and much-needed hospital in Haiti. Louima indicated he had plans to use his own money and donations to open community centers in Haiti, New York and Florida for Haitians and others seeking legal, financial or other aid. Louima also paid the school tuition for 14 poor children in Thomassin, a small community where he grew up. During his visit to Haiti, he met with the President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest who Louima knew from his school days. In a rare interview; Louima said he's convinced he can make a difference in his impoverished homeland: "Maybe God saved my life for a reason, I believe in doing the right thing."
Louima has since participated in anti-police brutality protests with Al Sharpton, notably over the shooting death of Sean Bell in 2006, and on August 9, 2007, exactly 10 years after his attack. On the latter date, Louima was honored in New York City by the National Action Network, at the House of Justice, for his courage and perseverance in seeking justice, in addition to his dedication to helping others who have suffered from police brutality.[dead link]
Referenced in Season 4, Episode 13 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – "Rotten"
- Joseph Gray (police officer)
- Frank Lino
- NYPD subway sodomy incident
- Police brutality (United States)
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- Duke Law Journal (48 Duke L. J. 1157) Prosecuting race by Anthony V. Alfieri
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- Original police incident reports, interviews, and other documents at The Smoking Gun.