Bartender Karolina Obrycka, left, listens while her attorney Terry Ekl, right, speaks during a news conference in...
Bartender Karolina Obrycka, left, listens while her attorney Terry Ekl, right, speaks during a news conference in Chicago on Nov. 13.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Paul Beaty
Throughout the 21/2-week trial, Karolina Obrycka 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 by security cameras.
"Speechless," she told a reporter as she left the courtroom. "I am very happy justice is 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 both the city and Abbate responsible, but the $850,000 in damages will be collected from the city, not Abbate, Obrycka's lawyers said after the verdict. The lawyers did not ask for a specific amount from the jury in closing arguments last week.
The disgraced officer, who has been 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 answer questions from reporters.
The video 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 video 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.
For such a legal claim against the city to go to trial is rare. Obrycka'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 also will 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 (video), 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 drunkenness. He was too intoxicated to think a code of silence would protect him, they said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office issued a statement Tuesday evening expressing confidence that police Superintendent Garry McCarthy "and his leadership team have not, and would not, approve of, let alone participate in, a code of silence. And to the extent there are members of the department who have a different view, the mayor is confident that McCarthy and his team will deal with that."
The city's Law Department said it would appeal the jury's decision.
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 that he was drunk after downing multiple alcoholic drinks and shots, tossed the diminutive Obrycka to the floor and then whaled away at her with his fists and feet.
"Nobody tells me what to do," Abbate was heard proclaiming on the video repeatedly played at trial.
Earlier that day, Abbate was flexing his muscles and yelling "Chicago Police Department" as he harassed other patrons while the cameras rolled -- images 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 police 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 video existed.
In dramatic testimony, Patti Chiriboga, an 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 video.
The conversation was secretly recorded by the bar manager and played at trial. At the trial, Chiriboga, who also worked at the bar, awkwardly testified that she made up the story, telling the jury she feared that if news of the fight got out, business at Jesse's would suffer.
Obrycka's lawyers contended that 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.
Copyright 2012 - Chicago Tribune
McClatchy-Tribune News Service