A federal judge ordered new trials for four New Orleans police officers who were convicted of violating the civil rights of two people killed a week after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.
U.S. District Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt also ordered a new trial for a fifth officer convicted of covering up the crimes.
Prosecutors created a “carnival atmosphere” outside the courtroom that harmed the defendants’ ability to get a fair trial, Engelhardt said today in a 129-page decision.
“Prosecutors acting with anonymity used social media to circumvent ethical obligations, professional responsibilities, and even to commit violations of the Code of Federal Regulations,” Engelhardt said.
He didn’t set a date for the new trial.
“We’re disappointed with the court’s ruling,” Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department, said in an e-mail. “We are reviewing the decision and considering our options.”
A jury in August 2011 convicted officers Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso of opening fire on unarmed black civilians on the city’s Danziger Bridge and conspiring with others to cover up their actions. Homicide detective Arthur “Archie” Kaufman, was convicted of conspiring to make the shootings appear justified.
The jury found the civil rights violations caused the deaths of James Brissette and Ronald Madison. Bowen was sentenced to 40 years in prison, Faulcon to 65, Gisevius to 40, Villavaso to 38, and Kaufman to six.
The shootings took place on Sept. 4, 2005, one week after Katrina flooded most of New Orleans and one day after stranded evacuees were airlifted and bused to safety.
The judge today said that multiple DOJ lawyers posted comments or responses to others’ comments on the nola.com web site about New Orleans, the police force and the Danziger Bridge case.
Engelhardt focused primarily on the postings of Sal Perricone, senior litigation counsel in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans. Perricone’s resignation last year was “precipitated by his online postings,” Engelhardt said.
Perricone anonymously posted criticisms of the police chief and the police department on the local news website, beginning as early as 2008, the judge said.
Perricone, posting under the name “legacyusa,” berated the police defendants in the Danziger Bridge case on June 22, 2011, minutes before jury selection began, Engelhardt said. “NONE of these guys should ever have been given a badge,” Perricone wrote, the judge said.
Months before the indictments were issued, using the same pseudonym, “Perricone addressed then-Sergeant Kaufman by name: ‘The cover up is always worse than the crime. Archie, your time is up,’” Engelhardt said, quoting a Feb. 23, 2010, post.
“Although Mr. Perricone has not had the opportunity to complete his review or digest the reasons the court gave for its order, he definitely and confidently denies ever violating any aspect of Rule 6-E,” attorney John L. Litchfield said, referring to the federal statute governing the confidentiality requirements of federal grand juries.
Ronald Madison’s family is “extremely disappointed” by the reversal, his brother Romell said in a statement today. Another brother, Lance Madison, survived the event and a jury found he was falsely prosecuted because of the police cover-up.
“It has been over eight years since our brother Ronald was shot and killed on the Danziger bridge and our brother Lance was falsely arrested and framed on eight counts of attempted murder,” Madison said. “This decision re-opens this terrible wound not only for our family but our entire community.” The Justice Department should appeal the reversal, Madison said.
“I’m very happy the judge ruled that way he did,” said Kaufman’s defense attorney Stephen London, who also is a former commander of the homicide division in the New Orleans police department. “I have not read the order yet but looking forward to doing so.”
The case is U.S. v. Bowen, 2:10-cr-00204, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).
To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Cronin Fisk in Southfield, Michigan, at firstname.lastname@example.org; Allen Johnson Jr. in New Orleans federal court at email@example.com.
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