Last year, five former New Orleans police officers were convicted and sent to prison for their role in the 2005 Danziger Bridge shootings. For those who don't remember, on September 4, 2005 four officers responded to reports of gunfire on the bridge by rolling up and firing indiscriminately on a family walking on the bridge, killing a family friend, James Brissette, in the process. They they spotted Ronald and Lance Madison fleeing the scene and gave chase. Faulcon shot Ronald Madison, a man with special needs, in the back, mortally wounding him. They then tried to cover up their ghastly actions by claiming they'd been shot at; indeed, Lance Madison was initially charged with shooting at the cops. However, the truth eventually came out, and the four officers and the lead investigator in the case were convicted on federal civil rights charges.
Yesterday, however, the presiding judge in that case, Kurt Englehardt, threw out the convictions due to what appears to be one of the most egregious cases of prosecutorial misconduct in recent memory. It seems that two federal prosecutors and a Justice Department official posted disparaging comments about the defendants online. Kombena mentioned this yesterday, but the conduct here is so shocking that it merits another diary.
In a 129-page order that blasted former prosecutors in then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten's office, Engelhardt pointed to "unprecedented events and acts" that "has taken the court on a legal odyssey unlike any other."Read Engelhardt's full ruling here. This is one ugly order. According to Engelhardt, the anonymous postings were part of a concerted effort to attack the officers and the NOPD in general during the trial.
The order granted a new trial for former police officers Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso as well as Arthur Kaufman, who was convicted of orchestrating the cover-up after being assigned to investigate the shooting.
The former officers sought a new trial last year, citing among other examples the revelations that prosecutors in Letten's office had authored disparaging comments on NOLA.com about defendants in several criminal cases, including the Danziger case.
Those revelations, and other instances of alleged misconduct, prompted Engelhardt in late 2012 to call for a criminal probe of former prosecutors Sal Perricone and Jan Mann. Tuesday's order, however, revealed new instances of misconduct.
Engelhardt wrote that Karla Dobinski, a veteran trial attorney in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., had also posted online comments during the trial. The order also cited testimony by Mann that she told then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten that she had posted online comments, shortly after the scandal over Perricone's posts began in March 2012.
The scandal first broke in March 2012, when Perricone, the top trial lawyer in the Eastern District of Louisiana, was found to have used the moniker "legacyusa" to post numerous rants about federal cases, including the Danziger case. It later emerged that Mann, who was then first assistant to U. S. Attorney Jim Letten, had also made posts attacking federal defendants, though she didn't comment on the Danziger case. A probe led by federal prosecutor John Horn revealed that Dobinski, using the moniker "Dipsos," had made posts attacking the five officers and urged others to join in as well. Engelhardt sounds particularly upset at Dobinski's conduct, since she was charged with protecting Bowen's rights during the trial.
In Engelhardt's view, the prosecutors engaged in "grotesque prosecutorial misconduct" that violated their ethical and professional obligations as well as Justice Department rules against making public comments that could influence a trial. Such "bizarre and appalling" behavior, he said, could only be remedied by a new trial.
There are two particularly outrageous things about this case. One is how completely unnecessary this was. The five officers' conduct was outrageous and criminal, and they deserved every day of the sentences originally handed down. In the case of the four officers who actually did the shooting, those sentences pretty much assured they would die in prison. But there is no excuse whatsoever for shredding the Constitution in order to get even the manifestly guilty convicted. The second is that their behavior could potentially throw other cases into doubt. As mentioned above, Perricone and Mann attacked other defendants as well. If I were Perricone and Mann, I'd have a lawyer of my own on speed dial.