Unprecedented Department of Justice misconduct requires a new trial for five former New Orleans policemen convicted in the deadly police shootings of six Hurricane Katrina victims fleeing the city, a federal judge ruled Sept. 17.
The actions of DOJ prosecutors in posting anonymous commentaries on the case were so “highly unusual, extensive and truly bizarre” as to require a new trial, according to U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, left, who presides in New Orleans. He wrote that he had been unable to find any other case like it in the country. The only appropriate remedy for such wrongdoing, he wrote over the objections of the DOJ, was to grant defendants a new trial.
The judge’s aggressive investigation of wrongdoing provides a rare bright spot in the astonishing array of law enforcement misconduct in the city. In this case, at least three federal prosecutors (including a new one identified this week) anonymously wrote reader comments on the NOLO.com website. The actions thereby undermined the defendants’ right to an unbiased jury, the judge ruled.
The DOJ had charged the defendant police officers with federal civil rights violations and cover-up after fatally shooting two hurricane victims and wounding four others fleeing across the Danzinger Bridge from chaotic conditions in the flooded city.
The judge’s ruling prompted the city’s major radio station, CBS affiliate WWL AM/FM, to invite my return Sept. 18 to discuss the ruling. Morning host Tommy Tucker, right, hosted the interview, available nationally via the station’s website.
Tucker noted that a WWL poll, albeit unscientific, was showing about 90 percent of those surveyed do not trust the Justice Department and Attorney Gen. Eric Holder. He asked if this was fair criticism. I said responsibility in a sense permeates the department, as evidenced by its aggressive defense of its convictions in this case using boiler plate excuses that the judge smacked down. However, President Obama would be reluctant to seek Holder’s resignation for fear of the difficulty of confirming a successor.
Further, I commented that the public has a strong interest in ensuring that rigorous investigation of blatant wrongdoing helps ensure that the DOJ operates in a fair, open and truthful manner in other cases.
Tucker and others at the station have been in the forefront of the region’s news media seeking answers for serious misconduct in the city’s police, state, and federal law enforcement personnel in multiple cases.