NEW ORLEANS – 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 after Hurricane Katrina, concluding the case had been tainted by “grotesque prosecutorial misconduct.”
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 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 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 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.”