New Trial Ordered In New Orleans Bridge Shooting Case

Five New Orleans police officers were accused of shooting unarmed civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Two people died and four were seriously wounded. The officers were convicted and sentenced to prison. But on Tuesday, a district judge threw out their conviction on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It was a bridge in New Orleans that turned dangerous for a group of people trying to escape the chaos that engulfed the city after Hurricane Katrina. Two people were killed, and four others wounded, on the Danziger Bridge when police opened fire on them; a shooting that became an emblem of the complete collapse of local government after the storm.

Yesterday, a New Orleans federal judge ordered a new trial for the five police officers convicted in that shooting. The judge cited, quote, "grotesque prosecutorial misconduct" in the 2011 trial of the police. He said prosecutors had tainted the verdict by posting inflammatory comments on a newspaper website while the trial was underway.

NPR's John Burnett covered Hurricane Katrina, the shootings and the trial; and he joins us now. John, good morning.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What did these federal prosecutors supposedly do?

BURNETT: Well, in this blistering, 129-page order, the original judge in the trial - Judge Kurt Engelhardt - he called out three federal attorneys for posting comments that he says has distorted and perverted justice, but he singled out one. Quote: "The reckless, wanton course of action of Karla Dobinski" - she works in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division in Washington. She wasn't actually a prosecutor on site in New Orleans, but her job, ironically, was to protect the rights of the defendants during investigation.

So what the judge said is that she posted comments on the New Orleans Times-Picayune's popular NOLA.com website, under the anonymous name Dipsos. And in those messages, she urged partisan trial observers to post comments about the trial that cast the prosecution in a favorable light and the defendants in a bad light. And the judge said that Dobinski, quote, "personally fanned the flames of those burning to see the defendants convicted." And this is not an entirely new charge - because it's important to note that the U.S. attorney in New Orleans at the time, Jim Letten, and several of its top aides had to resign last December because the two top prosecutors admitted to posting anonymous comments online.

MONTAGNE: Well, John, let's just pause for a moment, here, to have you remind us of the details of what happened that day in 2005 on Danziger Bridge.

BURNETT: So after the storm, law and order had disintegrated in New Orleans. A group of police officers were responding to a call of an officer down on the Danziger Bridge. When they arrived with their weapons drawn, they found two groups of African-Americans who they thought were the assailants. It turned out there was no officer down. ]>

MONTAGNE: So what has been the reaction to this turnaround in New Orleans?

BURNETT: Well, of course, the lawyers for the five police officers that have been serving prison sentences for the shootings and the cover-up say the judge's decision is justified. The lawyers had claimed that prosecutors' online comments and leaks to reporters had tainted the trial from the beginning, and so they had been asking for a new trial. From the victim's side, Dr. Romell Madison - it was his mentally disabled brother, Ronald, who was killed by a shotgun blast in the back - Dr. Madison said in a statement: "This decision reopens a terrible wound for our family and our entire community."

And he asked the Justice Department to appeal the judge's order. And the Department of Justice simply responded that they're disappointed, and they're reviewing the decision and considering their options.

MONTAGNE: What, then, does happen now?

BURNETT: Well, Judge Engelhardt has given both sides a month to get their schedules worked out, so they can set a new trial date. He said a retrial was, quote, "a bitter pill to swallow, but a small price to pay to protect the validity of the verdict and the integrity of the court."

MONTAGNE: NPR's John Burnett, who covered Hurricane Katrina, and also the trial of these police officers. Thanks very much.

BURNETT: You're welcome, Renee.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: