A federal judge overturned the convictions of five New Orleans police officers over the shooting deaths of unarmed civilians, who in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were seeking help. The judge cited “grotesque” prosecutorial misconduct as the reason. In a piercing 129-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt found that federal prosecutors had anonymously participated in public persecution that may have tainted the jury pool. Prosecutors posted damning critiques online about the accused officers and the NOPD before and during the 2011 trial. This, of course, is a breach of professional ethics, but also deprived the officers of a fair trial. The judge granted a new trial to all the officers.
“Re-trying this case is a very small price to pay in order to protect the validity of the verdict in this case, the institutional integrity of the Court, and the criminal justice system as a whole,” Judge Engelhardt wrote.
The judge’s decision effectively, yet temporarily, nullifies a U.S. Dept. of Justice success. The DOJ has been trying to clean up the troubled Louisiana criminal justice system for the last several years. Four of the five officers were accused of firing on a group of unarmed civilians on or near the Danziger Bridge on Sept. 4, 2005. The incident killed two people and severely injured others. The fifth officer was accused of covering it up afterwards. The judge’s ruling slammed two former top attorneys in the federal prosecutor’s office located in New Orleans, as well as a lawyer at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The prosecutors posted their prejudicial comments on NOLA.com, a website of a local newspaper. The comments centered on attacking the department, calling for guilty verdicts, and encouraging other commentators to poke holes in the defense’s case. The judge wrote that he was unaware of any other case in which prosecutors “acting with anonymity used social media to circumvent ethical obligations, professional responsibilities, and even to commit violations of the Code of Federal Regulations.”
He called the behavior “appalling”.
The Justice Department is checking on whether they can appeal.
Judge Engelhardt’s ruling sets the stage for another round of trials for former detective Arthur Kaufman (charged with directing a complex coverup), former officers Anthony Villavaso, Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, and Robert Faulcon (all charged with opening fire on civilians). Judge Engelhardt had overseen the trial and sentenced the officers to prison terms ranging from 6 to 65 years. The appellate lawyers for the officers had appealed the ruling because prosecutors had “engaged in a secret public relations campaign” to inflame public opinion to secure a conviction. The judge couldn’t find evidence of an organized campaign, but individual prosecutors did participate in unseemly conduct, which had the same effect.
Two of the prosecutors involved in the online posting, Sal Perricone and Jan Mann, resigned after their conduct became known. It is unclear what the employment status of the D.C.-based Justice Department lawyer implicated in the scandal, Karla Dobinski, is or how it was affected by the revelations. News that federal prosecutors were participating in shaping public opinion first broke in 2012 and cost Jim Letten, the top prosecutor, his job. The Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility launched an investigation as well. Judge Engelhardt’s ruling called into question the impartiality of the probe.