On Tuesday, five officers convicted for the role in the 2005 Danziger Bridge shootings in New Orleans were granted a new trial due to numerous disparaging anonymous online posts by federal prosecutors. I did some more digging, and what I've turned up is disturbing enough to demand further investigation.
The saga actually dates back to March 2012, when Fred Heebe, the owner of the River Birch landfill, filed a defamation suit in which he dropped a bombshell--a federal prosecutor was anonymously slamming him on NOLA.com. The landfill was the target of an extensive federal bribery investigation, and Heebe believed that Sal Perricone, the lead federal trial attorney in New Orleans, was behind the posts. According to James Fitzgerald, a former FBI profiler who helped unmask the Unabomber, several posts by user "HenryLMencken1951" used language that was very similar to filings made by federal prosecutors in the River Birch case. He also displayed a much greater interest in that case, and other goings-on in the U.S. Attorney's office, than conventional wisdom would suggest for a typical reader. Only two days later, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten confirmed that Perricone was behind the posts. As if he had a choice, Perricone resigned on March 20.
Two months later, with the ink barely dry on their convictions, the five officers filed an appeal, principally based on evidence that Perricone had slammed them online. According to the order for a new trial, Perricone--using various monikers including HenryLMencken1951, Crawdaddy and LegacyUSA--had begun attacking the officers and the NOPD in general as early as 2008. He also made several posts in the wake of the guilty plea of one of the officers, Michael Lohman, urging the other defendants to plead guilty. It also reveals that Perricone and Justice Department official Karla Dobinski used their online posts to post running commentary of the trial. Dobinski's involvement is especially troubling, since she was charged with ensuring that prosecutors didn't improperly use the testimony one of the defendants, Kenneth Bowen, gave to a state grand jury investigating the case.
The way I'm reading the order for a new trial, this appears to be one of the primary reasons why the verdicts were thrown out. Perricone's posts prior to the trial amounted to an attempt to "poison the well" and influence the thinking of potential jurors. Additionally, the jury wasn't sequestered, and thus could easily have been swayed by Perricone and Dobinski's commentary on the trial. Those five officers were manifestly guilty, and deserved every day of the sentences originally imposed. In the cases of four of them, the sentences would have either kept them in prison for life or made them very old men by the time they got out. However, Perricone and Dobinski engaged in high-tech jury tampering and witness intimidation. You simply cannot tolerate that in a criminal trial, no matter how overwhelming the evidence may be.
As I mentioned on Wednesday, two things make this particularly disturbing. One is that this behavior was completely unnecessary. The evidence against the officers was overwhelming, and a conviction would have been a near-certainty in any event.
The second is that Perricone's actions may directly affect the outcome of other trials as well. For instance, former mayor Ray Nagin wants his federal corruption trial postponed due to numerous anonymous comments about him that are now confirmed to have been made by Perricone. Also, former city affordable housing director Stacey Jackson, who is facing conspiracy charges, claims racially inflammatory statements by Perricone could help her defense. And that's not even counting any number of people sitting in federal prison whose convictions could now be in doubt due to these comments. Seems to me that the only way this can be addressed is a root-and-branch investigation of the goings-on in that office under Letten's tenure.