NEW ORLEANS (AP) — More than two years ago, federal prosecutors exchanged hugs and held hands with victims’ relatives after a jury convicted five former New Orleans police officers of civil rights violations stemming from deadly shootings on a bridge after Hurricane Katrina.
But a judge threw out those convictions Tuesday and ordered a new trial for the officers, concluding the case had been tainted by “grotesque prosecutorial misconduct.”
Romell Madison, whose mentally disabled brother, Ronald, was one of two unarmed people gunned down on the Danziger Bridge, said the family is “extremely disappointed” and urged the Justice Department to appeal the judge’s ruling.
“Our fight for justice continues,” he said in a statement.
Sherrel Johnson, whose 17-year-old son, James Brissette, also was shot and killed by police on the bridge, said she was stunned by the ruling.
“Is my son going to get a new lease on life? Is he coming back? What about the mental anguish that these people put us through?” she asked during a telephone interview. “It is not fair to make us sit through that again.”
In a 129-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt said at least three government attorneys posted anonymous comments on a New Orleans newspaper’s website, creating a “carnival atmosphere” that “distorted and perverted” justice in the case.
“The public must have absolute trust and confidence in this process,” he wrote. “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 this court, and the criminal justice system as a whole.”
Less than a week after Katrina’s 2005 landfall, police shot and killed Madison and Brissette and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge. Five former officers cooperated with a Justice Department investigation and pleaded guilty to engaging in a cover-up to make the shootings appear justified.
After a jury convicted five other former officers in 2011, their attorneys argued that prosecutors’ online comments and leaks to news organizations were part of a “secret public relations campaign” that deprived their clients of a fair trial.
Engelhardt granted their request for a new trial, though he called it a “bitter pill to swallow.”
“The government’s actions, and initial lack of candor and credibility thereafter, is like scar tissue that will long evidence infidelity to the principles of ethics, professionalism, and basic fairness and common sense necessary to every criminal prosecution, wherever it should occur in this country,” he wrote.
Former police Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius and former officers Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon had been convicted of charges related to the shooting and cover-up. Retired Sgt. Arthur “Archie” Kaufman, who was assigned by the police department to investigate the case, wasn’t charged in the shootings but was convicted of orchestrating the cover-up. Engelhardt sentenced them to prison terms that ranged from six to 65 years. All five are serving those sentences.
Villavaso’s attorney, Tim Meche, said he hopes the Justice Department re-evaluates whether the case should be retried. “The judge’s opinion validates our belief that this case was a perversion of justice,” Meche said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said prosecutors were disappointed.