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Jurors rule in favor of female bartender in police beating case

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012 9:28 a.m. CST

(MCT) — CHICAGO—Throughout the 2 1/2-week trial, Karolina Obrykca displayed the steely countenance of a woman who would stand up to a man about twice her size.

But Tuesday evening, she couldn’t contain a giddy, bubbly smile minutes after a federal jury awarded her $850,000 and found that a widespread code of silence had emboldened off-duty Chicago police Officer Anthony Abbate to beat her in a notorious attack captured on security cameras.

“Speechless,” she told a reporter as she left the courtroom.”I am very happy justice was served. It’s finally over.”

The eight-woman, three-man jury also found that Abbate took part in a conspiracy to cover up the beating.

Jurors held the city and Abbate responsible, but the $850,000 in damages will be collected from the city, not Abbate personally, Obrycka’s lawyers said after the verdict. The lawyers did not ask for a specific amount from the jury during closing arguments last week.

The disgraced police officer, who was eventually convicted of a felony and fired by the department, left the courthouse without comment. And none of the jurors took U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve up on an offer to take questions from reporters.

The videotape of the beefy Abbate pummeling Obrycka inside a Northwest Side bar in 2007 marked one of the most embarrassing chapters in recent Chicago Police Department history and contributed to the resignation of then-Superintendent Philip Cline.

Fearful that the department would not discipline Abbate, Obrycka’s lawyers have said they released the videotape to the news media, causing an Internet sensation with the graphic images.

The verdict in the high-stakes trial came after two days of deliberations and a complicated trial that saw dozens of witnesses offer contradictory and colorful testimony about the beating in Jesse’s Short Stop Inn.

At the center of the trial was the allegation that a long-standing code of silence protects officers who use excessive force or engage in other misconduct. As a result, Obrycka’s lawyers maintained that Abbate acted with impunity in the bar because he was unafraid of consequences, the result of the blue wall of silence as well as department’s history of ineffective discipline action against wayward officers.

For such a legal claim against the city to go to trial is rare. Orbycka’s lawyers waged a five-year legal fight. The city at no point offered her a settlement, calling the case a matter of “principle” in part because Abbate was off-duty at the time of the beating.

“She’s been through a lot, and a lot of people would have caved in under the pressure of what she had to go through,” said her attorney, Terry Ekl, who embraced his client after the verdict was announced.

With the jury’s favorable verdict, Ekl said, the city will also have to pay substantial legal fees racked up by Obrycka’s lawyers over the legal fight, but he maintained far more was at stake than money. The verdict sent a strong message about how the Police Department is run, he said.

“This is putting the Chicago Police Department right on the front burner for everyone to take a look at,” he said. “But for that (videotape), Anthony Abbate would still be a police officer today. If it became Karolina’s word against Anthony Abbate ... this case would have gone nowhere.”

City attorneys argued that Abbate’s actions were simply the result of his being so drunk. He was too intoxicated to think a code of silence would protect him, they said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office issued a statement saying the mayor was confident that Superintendent Garry McCarthy “and his leadership team have not, and would not approve of, let alone participate in, a code of silence.” The city’s Law Department said the jury’s decision would be appealed.

“Former Chicago Police Officer Anthony Abbate’s unprovoked attack on Ms. Obrycka was inexcusable and unforgiveable, and we applaud the jury’s decision to hold Abbate accountable for that attack,” the department said in a statement. “However, we believe Mr. Abbate alone should be held accountable for his actions.”

Just days after the owner of Jesse’s Short Stop Inn installed security cameras, Abbate went into a rage when Obrycka tried to prevent him from coming behind the bar. Abbate, who testified he was drunk after downing multiple alcoholic drinks and shots, tossed the dimunitive Obrycka to the floor and then wailed away at her with his fists and feet.

“Nobody tells me what to do,” Abbate was heard proclaiming on the videotape repeatedly played in court during the trial.

Earlier in the day, Abbate was flexing his muscles and yelling “Chicago Police Department” as he harassed other patrons as the cameras rolled — footage the jury also saw.

Obrycka’s attorneys alleged that Abbate’s efforts to cover up the beating started in the hours after it happened when he, friends from the bar and several cop pals exchanged hundreds of phone calls.

The two police officers who responded to Obrycka’s 911 call — and who did not appear to know Abbate — also testified that they left key information off their initial incident report, including Abbate’s name and that a videotape existed.

In dramatic testimony, Patti Chiriboga, a close Abbate confidant, recanted her grand-jury testimony that she passed along a threatening message from Abbate to the bar’s manager that he would plant cocaine and falsely charge witnesses if they didn’t drop the matter and give him the videotape.

The conversation was secretly videotaped by the bar manager and played at trial. At the trial, Chiriboga, who also worked at the bar, awkwardly testified she made up the story, telling the jury she feared if news of the fight got out, business at Jesse’s would suffer.

Obrycka’s lawyers contended the cover-up even stretched high into Police Department ranks.

At trial, high-level officials from the Police Department and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office clashed over who wanted to aggressively prosecute Abbate. He had originally been charged with just a misdemeanor — a move that one top prosecutor said his office knew nothing about and could have jeopardized plans to charge Abbate with a felony. But police officials contended that same prosecutor had voiced support for a misdemeanor.

Police officials also seemed to contradict each other on the stand. Even as command staff members said they were hoping to secure a felony against the officer, two of their own investigators went to Obrycka’s home three days after the beating and had her sign a misdemeanor complaint.

Obrycka, who is married and the mother of a young son, also testified, telling the jury that she suffered severe back and neck pain the night of the attack and still endures panic attacks.

In the lobby of the federal courthouse Tuesday evening, she blinked at the lights of the television cameras and stammered when asked if she thought the verdict meant she could finally put the ordeal behind her.

“I hope so,” she said. “I hope so.”

As reporters continued to shout questions, she backed away and was led to a car by one of her attorneys.

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