A federal judge today sentenced former New Orleans police officer Ronald Mitchell to 20 months in prison for lying about the circumstances of a fatal shooting that occurred in the tumultuous days after Hurricane Katrina.
Late last year, a jury convicted Mitchell of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the killing of 45-year-old Danny Brumfield Sr., who died of a shotgun blast in front of the city’s convention center.
Mitchell fired the fatal shot while on patrol with his partner, Ray Jones, who was also charged with perjury and obstruction. The jury acquitted Jones.
The officers have not been charged for causing Brumfield’s death. Key facts about the killing – which occurred in the early morning darkness of Sept. 3, 2005 – remain murky: Mitchell and Jones claimed that Brumfield leapt onto their car while brandishing a pair of scissors. Brumfield’s family disputes the police narrative, however, and during the trial witnesses offered widely varying accounts of the incident.
Mitchell’s attorney, Kerry Cuccia, said U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance had been “objective and dispassionate” in handing down the sentence, which falls within federal sentencing guidelines. “We accept the sentence,” he said. Mitchell will turn himself into a federal lock-up in May, Cuccia said.
The charges against Mitchell stemmed from sworn testimony given in 2007 as part of a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Brumfield’s family. During a deposition, Mitchell said that after shooting Brumfield he stepped out of the police cruiser to check the man’s throat for a pulse. The jury concluded that he had lied.
Mitchell is one of 15 former New Orleans officers convicted as the result of an extensive federal probe into police misconduct committed during the weeks before and after the hurricane.
The federal investigation into Brumfield’s death was prompted by a 2009 report published by ProPublica, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and PBS “Frontline” that examined the shooting, highlighting the police department’s flawed response to it.
Police responding to the shooting failed to collect key evidence, including the scissors Brumfield allegedly wielded, lost photographs of the scene, and didn’t interview witnesses or gather their contact information, our report showed. The lead detective assigned to the case, DeCynda Barnes, didn’t interview Mitchell or Jones until months after the shooting.
Barnes also never read Brumfield’s autopsy report and was unaware that he had been shot in the back, a fact that contradicted the narrative offered by the officers. She said in her deposition testimony that it wasn’t police policy to read autopsy reports when investigating homicides.
Brumfield’s family won a $400,000 settlement from the city of New Orleans. Richard Root, their attorney, remains convinced that Brumfield’s shooting was unjustified and, possibly, the subject of a cover-up.
“The question is whether it was a hopelessly inept homicide investigation or an intentional attempt not to relay the most significant details of the case” to the Orleans Parish District Attorney, Root said.