Three officers cleared in New York brutality case

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A CASE of police brutality that shocked New York and threatened to discredit the city's tough law and order policy concluded yesterday with the conviction of one city police officer and the acquittal of three others. A fifth officer, Justin Volpe, had pleaded guilty halfway through the six-week trial.

Volpe admitted using a wooden stick to sodomise a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, in a police station lavatory after arresting him for disorderly conduct outside a nightclub. Yesterday, the jury found his colleague, Charles Schwarz, guilty of participating in the crime by holding Louima down while Volpe assaulted him.

Two other officers, Thomas Bruder and Thomas Wiese, who were accused of beating Mr Louima on the way to the police station, were acquitted, as was the supervisor of the four men, Michael Bellomo, who was accused of complicity in covering up the crime. The jury had spent two and a half days deliberating the verdicts.

Volpe and Schwarz could be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Volpe's term could be reduced slightly in recognition of his guilty plea, although his lawyer and the judge made clear at the time that his change of plea was not the result of a bargain. The sentencing hearing will probably be held next month. The two men could also face substantial fines and orders to make restitution to the victim's family.

The verdicts followed a trial that had heard harrowing testimony about events in the early hours of 9 August 1997, after police were called to a fight outside a Brooklyn nightclub. Mr Louima told the court how he was arrested, beaten, and then tortured with a broomstick. He said Volpe had threatened that if he told anyone about what had happened "he [would] kill me and everybody in my family".

Volpe told the court that he had wanted to intimidate Mr Louima, mistakenly believing that he had insulted him. His admission followed evidence from colleagues, including one who quoted him as boasting: "I took a man down tonight." As the prosecution pointed out, however, this rare breaking of the "blue wall of silence" among police officers came only after a hospital nurse reported Mr Louima's account of how his injuries occurred and police investigators launched an inquiry.

The case, in which all the accused were white and the victim black, exacerbated tension between the city's police and ethnic minorities and horrified many New Yorkers, who turned out in their thousands at a series of celebrity-studded demonstrations. With the multiple shooting by police of an unarmed African immigrant earlier this year, it caused many New Yorkers to question for the first time the "zero tolerance" policing that is credited with spectacularly reducing crime, and caused a sharp dip in the popularity of the mayor, Rudy Giuliani, which could jeopardise his political future.