(MCT) — CHICAGO — Lawyers for a woman bartender who was viciously beaten by an off-duty Chicago police officer wasted little time Monday airing an infamous videotape of the 2007 attack for federal jurors who will have to decide whether to assess potentially millions of dollars in damages.
In opening statements, an attorney for the beating victim, Karolina Obrycka, repeatedly referred to a "code of silence" that he said emboldened disgraced former Officer Anthony Abbate that night and in the days after when he and other officers allegedly engaged in a bid to cover up his misconduct.
City attorneys, however, played their own excerpts from the videotape to try to show that Abbate was too drunk to be so clever.
In the footage, Abbate clapped out of tune to the juke box music, played air guitar, stumbled, staggered and physically attacked his own friends.
"It's not about CPD policy and procedure. It's about a guy who got drunk, who sang songs, messed with other customers and beat up Karolina Obrycka," said attorney Matthew Hurd, who is representing the city. "Abbate was not thinking, 'I am a police officer. I'll get away with this.' He was a man at a bar getting drunk."
Taking the witness stand at the end of the trial's first day, Abbate testified that he blacked out from drinking and didn't remember much from that night in February 2007 at Jesse's Short Stop Inn, a Northwest Side bar.
When Obrycka attorney's, Terry Ekl, pressed him about whether he believed he could rely on fellow officers to help him escape punishment or arrest for the beating, Abbate said he had no plan that night.
"My brain wasn't working at all," the disgraced former cop said in a low voice.
As he did at his criminal trial in 2009, Abbate portrayed Obrycka as the aggressor despite the fact that at 6 feet 1 inches and 250 pounds he towered over the diminutive bartender. Abbate was convicted of aggravated battery but spared prison. He was later fired for his misconduct.
At issue in federal court is the lawsuit Obrycka brought against the veteran cop and the city.
In his opening, Ekl said phone records will show how Abbate and his friends, including Chicago police officers, made more than 100 phone calls in the hours after the beating. He also alleges that close friends of Abbate's passed along threatening messages to Obrycka and other bar employees to turn the damaging videotape over or face trumped-up DUI or drug possession charges. Another Abbate friend also allegedly tried to bribe Obrycka with promises that her medical bills would be paid if she didn't complain to the department or file a lawsuit.
Ekl stressed that on-duty Chicago police officers, including high-ranking officials, schemed to underplay the significance of the beating. Ekl singled out then-Deputy Superintendent Debra Kirby, who was in charge of the Internal Affairs Division at the time, saying she soft-pedaled the attack when she spoke to Cook County state's attorney's officials about the case.
Kirby is one of some 30 witnesses expected to testify in the three-week trial.
Hurd cautioned the jury that several of the witnesses alleged to be part of the coverup will deny it.
Hurd called the phone calls made by Abbate an example of "drunk dialing," in which he talked about his dog and Led Zeppelin with friends.
As for the department's actions, Hurd said the responding officers' report about the attack did not include full details on Abbate because they were getting "sketchy" information at the bar about him. Hurd also stressed that the report made its way to the proper investigators within two days.
Hurd also claimed police officials wanted Abbate charged with felonies, but prosecutors refused.
The veteran officer was at first charged with misdemeanors, but prosecutors upgraded the charges to felonies after Obrycka's lawyers released the videotape to the news media and it went viral and caused a firestorm of criticism.