NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A federal judge on Tuesday ordered a new trial for five former New Orleans police officers convicted of civil rights violations stemming from deadly shootings on a bridge in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled Tuesday that the "highly unusual, extensive and truly bizarre actions" of prosecutors warrant throwing out the officers' convictions. "The public must have absolute trust and confidence in this process," he wrote in a 129-page order.
"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 officers shot and killed two unarmed people 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 designed to make the shootings appear justified. Attorneys for five other former officers convicted at trial in 2011 had asked for a new trial, saying that a series of leaks to news organizations were part of a "secret public relations campaign" by the government that deprived their clients of a fair trial.
Former 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 to investigate the shootings, wasn't charged in the shootings but was convicted of orchestrating the cover-up.
The former officers' attorneys also cited a series of anonymous online posts by senior prosecutors.
Former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten resigned in December 2012 after two of his top deputies acknowledged they had been posting anonymous comments on nola.com, The Times-Picayune's companion website, about cases their office had handled, including the Danziger Bridge investigation.
Several months before his resignation, Letten had told Engelhardt he didn't authorize anyone from his staff to leak information about Lohman's case and was furious when the reports were published.
During a hearing in June 2012, Engelhardt said it appeared federal prosecutors didn't conduct a "full-blown investigation" after The Associated Press and The Times-Picayune published articles about former New Orleans police officer Michael Lohman's guilty plea while his case was under seal.
Lohman pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up of the shootings. Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. Levee breaks flooded much of the city and created a climate of chaos as rescuers attempted to save people stranded on rooftops. Violence and looting also were reported.
Eric Hessler, attorney for Robert Gisevius, said, "Obviously it's quite clear this was a sensationalized case and our trial team knew we had an uphill battle because of the political climate.. They deserve a level playing field, and hopefully they'll get one with the new trial and prosecutorial team."