Louima's story horrified the nation and rocked many New Yorkers' faith in their police force: In August 1997, Louima spent a brutal summer night in the bathroom of a Brooklyn police station, being sodomized with the handle of a toilet plunger.
Officer Justin Volpe was convicted in the attack, and sentenced to 30 years in jail. Two years later New York City and the NYC police union paid Louima $8.7 million in settlement of his claims. The three men who allegedly hoped to cover up the crime, Charles Schwarz, Thomas Wiese and Thomas Bruder, were charged and found guilty of obstructing justice. Schwarz, who was identified as the second officer in the bathroom during the attack, was also convicted of violating Louima's civil rights. Thursday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the obstruction-of-justice convictions, citing lack of evidence. Schwarz's civil rights conviction was returned to the lower court, where prosecutors hope to initiate a new trial within the next six months. Volpe's sentence is not affected.
The ruling sparked outrage and talk of protests from many New Yorkers, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, who, alongside attorney Johnny Cochran, had rallied support for Louima. Sharpton decried the decisions Thursday morning, calling it "a shocking display of how the judicial system continues to fail to protect citizens from police abuse." He also urged U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer to take this case into consideration during deliberations over the appointment of a new U.S. attorney for New York. "We will now be facing new prosecutors who may or may not have the same dedication" to justice as their predecessors, Sharpton declared.
TIME.com asked Steven Lubet, director of the trial advocacy program at Northwestern University, to discuss the implications of the Louima case, and the options open to the prosecution following Thursday's decision.
TIME.com: What does Thursday's ruling mean?
Steven Lubet: This means the first conviction, conspiracy to obstruct justice, is completely reversed. There will be no new trial on that count, because the government only gets one chance to prove their case. On the civil rights conviction, Charles Schwarz could end up on trial again, if the prosecutors decide that's the way to go.
So this is the end of the line on the conspiracy charges?
Not necessarily. The prosecutors could submit an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging the ruling. A reversal in a federal case on the grounds of lack of evidence is pretty rare, so I think we may well see that appeal.
What will Schwarz's lawyers try to prove in a second trial?
The basis of the court's reversal of his conviction on the civil rights charge was that he was effectively denied counsel and that the jury was exposed to prejudicial information during deliberations. What happened was, the jury deciding his case heard that Volpe had pleaded guilty. Later, of course, Volpe admitted to federal officers that another officer was there while he attacked Louima but insists it wasn't Schwarz.
But that testimony wasn't admitted in the last trial, so will it be admissible in the next one?
The prosecutors could move to suppress Volpe's testimony. It's certainly true that the likelihood of convicting Schwarz is greatly diminished if Volpe testifies that he wasn't present.
So essentially the prosecution desperately needs to keep Volpe off the witness stand?
I'm sure they'll try. But you never know the jury might not find Volpe particularly believable anyway.