Lawyers for Officer Justin Volpe were forced to change tactics after their client was vividly implicated in the alleged torture by testimony offered by a parade of fellow officers brought to the stand by prosecutors last week. In accounts that shocked city residents, they witnesses described Volpe bragging about the alleged assault and showing off blood and excrement stains on the stick.
Unfolding in a Brooklyn courthouse, the trial has presented a more powerful picture of police brutality than has been seen in New York for decades. It has come, moreover, at a time when racial tensions in the city are already running high, after a fatal shooting in February of an unarmed West African immigrant in the Bronx by four white police officers. The trial of those officers is pending.
The two incidents have cast a sinister shadow over therecord of the mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani. Because of his commitment to strong policing, underpinned by the so-called "zero tolerance" philosophy, Mr Giuliani has emerged as the likely Republican candidate for next year's race for a New York Senate seat, possibly with Hillary Rodham Clinton as his adversary.
The Brooklyn trial centres on events on a summer night in 1997 when police picked up an immigrant, Abner Louima, after a melee outside a nightclub. Prosecutors claim that four of the defendants were involved in beating Mr Louima in the squad car. One is accused also of holding him down while Volpe, 27, sodomised him with the stick. A fifth officer is charged with trying to cover up the incident.
The trial has been remarkable, in part because of the willingness of the other officers who were in the Brooklyn police station that night to come forward to incriminate Volpe. Traditionally, the NYPD hasrespected a "blue wall of silence", where officers will always protect colleagues when they come under investigation by Internal Affairs at the courts. That wall crumbled last week.
It was in the face of the officers' testimony that Volpe's lawyers apparently determined that an acquittal was no longer imaginable. Volpe, who must wait until verdicts are delivered on all the defendants to discover his fate, could be sentenced to life imprisonment.
The final blow to the defence came last Thursday when one of the police witnesses, Sergeant Kenneth Wernick, took the stand. He told jurors how Volpe had approached him after the attack, which took place in a lavatory in the precinct station, and boasted that he "took a stick and put it 5 or 6 inches up [Mr Louima's rectum], took it out and put it up to his mouth and teeth area, kind of like showing it to him".
Volpe appeared before Judge Eugene Nickerson yesterday, without the jury present, to enter his guilty plea. Volpe confirmed he had struck Mr Louima in the car and had then assaulted him in the lavatory. Asked to describe what he did to Mr Louima, Volpe, with tears in his eyes, replied: "I sodomised him with a stick."
Mr Louima was taken to hospital with serious injuries, including torn tissue between his bowel and bladder.Reuse content