Date: Tue, 10 Feb 1998 08:53:26 -0500
Sender: The African Global Experience <AGE-L@UGA.CC.UGA.EDU>
From: Marpessa Kupendua <nattyreb@IX.NETCOM.COM>
Subject: !*What Direction for the Case of Abner Louima?

>Date: Mon, 9 Feb 1998 20:19:20 -0800 (PST)
>From: Tom Burghardt <>
>Subject: (en) What Direction for the Case of Abner Louima?

What direction for the case of Abner Louima?

Haiti Progres, This Week in Haiti, Vol.15 no.46, 4–10 February 1998

Will the case of Abner Louima become a landmark in the history of the struggle against police brutality? Or will it be depoliticized and reduced to a venal bid for a high cash settlement?

This is the question which tormented Carl Thomas, Brian Figeroux and Casilda Roper-Simpson until a tempestuous Jan. 23 meeting where they resigned as Louima’s lawyers, citing professional and ethical differences with three other lawyers on the case: Johnny Cochran, Barry Scheck, and Peter Neufeld. The latter three became famous in the U.S. as the dream team which successfully defended former football and movie star O.J. Simpson, who was accused of murdering his wife and another man in 1995.

In an interview with Haiti Progres, Carl Thomas said that friction began almost immediately between the Cochran’s team and his firm, Louima’s original lawyers. It was Thomas’s partner, Figeroux, who rushed to Louima’s Coney Island Hospital bed on Aug. 11 in response to a desperate call from Jonas Louima, Abner’s younger brother. The family had called other attorneys, including Haitian ones, but they had all wanted cash up front before they would take the case.

But Figeroux and Thomas, two Trinidadians whom many young Haitians know from the time a few years ago when they taught courses at Brooklyn College, immediately took up the case without concern for money because it concerned police brutality. Thomas says that after the dream team came onto the case in late September, he and his associates found themselves shouldered aside. These were stars coming in, and we were just the locals, Thomas said. After that, it became a difficult process for us to know what was going on.

Thomas’s team initiated a $155 millon suit against New York City for the alleged beating and torture of Louima at the hands of 4 policemen after his arrest outside Brooklyn’s Rendez-vous Nightclub last Aug. 9. They saw the event as part of a long litany of abuses by the police department and were preparing to prosecute it in a way that would highlight the pattern. But, according to Thomas, this strategy changed when Cochran and his associates joined Louima’s legal team. I wanted to leave at that point simply because I felt that those guys were coming from a different perspective, Thomas said. They had no basis for understanding what it meant to be brutalized by the police in Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct. They didn’t see what it meant for the movement, or how it could be important in bringing an end to police brutality. My fears were borne out throughout my association with them.

Thomas says that when he and his colleagues tried to address this problem, Cochran’s team really didn’t want to hear what we had to say, as if they had some ancient Chinese secret about how to conduct this case.

While Thomas stopped short of accusing Cochran’s team of opportunism, he did expound on how different lawyers approach police brutality incidents. In a lot of cases, not just this case, lawyers tend to focus on the opportunity for a huge settlement, Thomas said. Trying to remedy police brutality is seen as a tangential issue, which, for Thomas, is putting the cart before the horse.

Furthermore, attorneys really can dictate the direction of the movement [against police brutality] simply because they have control over these cases. That is a bad thing, Thomas said. The movement should have control over the case. Not the legal aspects, of course, but the direction and focus of the case should be based on an organic connection to the movement. If there is no connection, it opens the door for all kinds of deal- making and conflicts.

Thomas fears that Cochran’s team will not take the high road because their links to the community are not strong enough. To have this case, which could be a seminal case, disjointed from the movement is to suggest a lack of sophisticated understanding of what needs to happen to bring this insidious plague [of police brutality] to an end.

However, Peter Neufeld of Cochran’s team responded that the suggestion that we are more concerned with financial rewards or keeping the case focus narrow is an expression by someone who is, frankly, very confused.

He also staunchly defends the reputations of himself and his colleagues. Our record as lawyers for social change speaks for itself, Neufeld said. Each of us has been involved in civil rights cases, and in particular police brutality cases, for more than a decade, indeed longer than the amount of time that the other lawyers have been practicing in the aggregate. Neufeld and Scheck both worked for many years as public defenders in the south Bronx.

He cited numerous cases in New York where he and Scheck have defended victims of police brutality, as well as Cochran’s record in California. In each of the cases that we have worked on involving police brutality, systemic changes were brought about because we were always concerned with the social and political issues, he said. This case [of Louima] is no different.

Neufeld also noted that he and Scheck are co-founders and co-directors of the Innocence Project, in which they represent about 450 prisoners around the country pro bono in efforts to reopen their cases while they are on death row or serving lengthy sentences. They try to prove that the prisoners are factually innocent and that they were unjustly convicted due to systemic problems in the criminal justice system. To date, we have exonerated more than 30 men, about a dozen of whom were on death row, Neufeld said.

The departure of Thomas, Figeroux and Roper-Simpson comes just over a week after revelations that Louima, when preparing to testify before a Grand Jury, could not recall if the policemen who sodomized him in the stationhouse bathroom said something like It’s Guiliani time, not Dinkins time, referring to the present and former mayors of New York City. (see Haiti Progres, Vol. 15 No. 44, January 21—27, 1998).

The Village Voice reported that the supposed retraction, and questions about damage to Louima’s dentures, caused Federal prosecutors to stop their investigation of the incident. But Federal prosecutors deny the report.

Also remaining among Louima’s lawyers is limousine-loving Samuel Rubenstein, a personal injury lawyer who was brought into the case by Louima’s uncle, the Rev. Philius Nicolas and his son Samuel. Thomas’s team has clashed openly with Rubenstein, whose motives they suspect.

Despite their leaving, Thomas says he and his associates are not upset. We support Abner Louima in his case and the eventual prosecution of the police officers.

Likewise, Louima family spokesperson, Samuel Nicolas, told Haiti Progres that there was no rancor in the split. We wish them well and are sorry that they are not on the team, Nicolas said. We wish they had stayed.

Clearly responding to community consternation, he also insisted that the focus of the case has not changed. Whoever is on the team, it is a police brutality issue, Nicolas said. We still believe that Mr. Cochran is one of the best attorneys in trying police brutality cases and that this team will represent Abner to the fullest so that we will see justice.