A federal judge on Tuesday overturned the convictions of five New Orleans police officers tied to the shooting of unarmed civilians during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, finding that prosecutors in the case had engaged in “grotesque” misconduct.
In a blistering and meticulously detailed 129-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt found that federal prosecutors in New Orleans had anonymously posted damning online critiques of the accused officers and the New Orleans Police Department before and during the 2011 trial, a breach of professional ethics that had the effect of depriving the officers of their rights to a fair trial.
The judge granted the officers’ request for a new trial.
“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 nullifies – at least temporarily – a key success in the U.S. Department of Justice’s half-decade effort to clean up the troubled New Orleans Police Department. Four of the five officers had been accused of firing on a group of civilians on or near the Danziger Bridge on Sept. 4, 2005, killing two people and seriously injuring others; a fifth officer had been charged with covering up the shooting.
The judge’s ruling excoriated two former top attorneys in the federal prosecutor’s office in New Orleans, as well as a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who had played a role in the case. The prosecutors posted comments about the Danziger case on NOLA.com, the website of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, as the case was still unfolding. The comments included a variety of attacks on the police department, calls for guilty verdicts and encouragements to other anonymous commentators to take apart the defense being offered by the five officers.
Engelhardt 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 of prosecutors “bizarre and appalling.”
The Justice Department, in a statement, said it was disappointed in the judge’s action.
“We are reviewing the decision and considering our options,” the statement said.
Judge Engelhardt’s ruling sets the stage for another round of trials for former detective Arthur Kaufman, who was charged with directing an extensive cover-up, as well as former officers Anthony Villavaso, Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, and Robert Faulcon, who were accused of firing on the civilians. Judge Engelhardt had overseen the trial and sentenced the officers to prison terms ranging from 6 to 65 years.
Lawyers for the officers subsequently asked the judge to overturn the conviction, saying the prosecutor’s office had “engaged in a secret public relations campaign” to inflame public opinion against the officers and to secure their convictions. The judge did not find evidence of an organized campaign, but said the conduct of the individual prosecutors had wound up having the same effect.
Two of the prosecutors involved in the online posting, Sal Perricone and Jan Mann, resigned after their conduct became known. The D.C.-based Justice Department lawyer implicated in the scandal, Karla Dobinski, is a veteran of the Civil Rights Division. It is unclear whether her employment status has been affected by the revelations.
News that some federal prosecutors in the New Orleans office had improperly posted comments online first broke in 2012, and ultimately cost Jim Letten, the office’s top official, his job. The Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility launched an investigation.
But Judge Engelhardt’s ruling called into question just how vigorous and comprehensive a probe that has been.