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Editorial: Is justice dead?

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In the days since an Appeals Court overturned the verdicts against Thomas Bruder, Thomas Wiese and Charles Schwarz, the former police officers convicted in the vicious attack on Abner Louima, some Queens residents appear certain that the judicial sky is falling. The decision of the court, they say, is proof that African Americans cannot get justice in New York City.

Marie Georges, a senior at York College in Jamaica and a member of the college’s Haitian club. said she “knew it was going to happen. The justice system does not work for blacks, and being Haitian doesn’t make it any easier.”

Ken Cohen, president of the northeast Queens NAACP in Flushing, said he was “in shock.” He charged that the court deliberately waited until the uproar over the cased had cooled down before issuing its decision.

And U.S.. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans) said he was “dismayed” and “appalled” by the verdict.

Such reactions are rooted more in the emotion of the moment than in fact. The truth is that the city, the NYPD and the criminal justice system pulled out all the stops in their effort to identify and prosecute every police officer involved in this shameful incident. They turned the 70th Precinct upside down to identify those who were directly involved and those who took part in a coverup after the attack. The command structure and nearly every officer at this precinct has been replaced. Since then the NYPD under Commissioner Bernard Kerik and later under Commissioner Ray Kelly has made a concerted effort to improve relations with the city’s minority communities.

Justin Volpe, the police officer who confessed to sodomizing Abner Louima with a broken broom handle in the precinct bathroom, was sentenced to 30 years in a federal prison. In New York City, first-time felons convicted of aggravated assault or even attempted murder rarely get sentenced to more than 10 years in prison. The Kings County prosecutor deferred to the feds on this case because the federal sentencing guidelines are far more severe.

They threw the book at Volpe. As a police officer, he was held to a higher standard — and deservedly so. But no one can say that Volpe got off easy. And no one can say that the prosecutors did not do their best to put Schwarz, Bruder and Wiese behind bars.

The Appeals Court found serious reason to question the convictions of these men. Community activists may not like the outcome, but we have not heard one serious legal scholar challenge the reasoning of the court. At times activists such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Herbert Daughtry have given the impression that they don’t care whether Schwarz was guilty or not or whether he got a fair trial. They just want him punished. One cannot be a champion of civil rights and show no concern for due process and the rights of all men.

Marie Georges is wrong. The criminal justice system in New York City does work for black people and it works for Haitians. The government spent more than a million dollars investigating and prosecuting those allegedly responsible for the attack on Abner Louima. Justice was not limited to criminal prosecution. Mr. Louima sued the city of New York and the city has agreed to pay him millions of dollars for his pain and suffering.

In the end justice may not be complete. It rarely is. It seems likely that there were other police officers who knew about the torture of Abner Louima and did noting about it. It seems equally likely that Charles Schwarz was wrongly convicted.

What happened to Louima was disgraceful. But no one can fairly say that the city has not made a sincere effort to right the wrong and make certain it never happens again.

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