|Cars pass over the Danziger Bridge on July 14, 2010 in New Orleans, La.|
A federal judge on Tuesday overturned the convictions of five New Orleans police officers tied to the shooting of unarmed civilians during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, finding that prosecutors in the case had engaged in “grotesque” misconduct.
In a blistering and meticulously detailed 129-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt found that federal prosecutors in New Orleans had anonymously posted damning online critiques of the accused officers and the New Orleans Police Department before and during the 2011 trial, a breach of professional ethics that had the effect of depriving the officers of their rights to a fair trial.
The judge’s ruling excoriated two former top attorneys in the federal prosecutor’s office in New Orleans, as well as a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who had played a role in the case. The prosecutors posted comments about the Danziger case on NOLA.com, the website of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, as the case was still unfolding. The comments included a variety of attacks on the police department, calls for guilty verdicts and encouragements to other anonymous commentators to take apart the defense being offered by the five officers.
Engelhardt wrote that he was unaware of any other case in which “prosecutors acting with anonymity used social media to circumvent ethical obligations, professional responsibilities, and even to commit violations of the Code of Federal Regulations.” He called the behavior of prosecutors “bizarre and appalling.”
Lawyers for the officers subsequently asked the judge to overturn the conviction, saying the prosecutor’s office had “engaged in a secret public relations campaign” to inflame public opinion against the officers and to secure their convictions. The judge did not find evidence of an organized campaign, but said the conduct of the individual prosecutors had wound up having the same effect. [LINK]