Judge Voids New Orleans Police Officers' Murder Convictions

Sep 17, 2013
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An old wound reopened in New Orleans today. Five former police officers who were convicted of shooting unarmed civilians and of staging an elaborate cover-up in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have had their convictions overturned. Today, a federal judge ordered a new trial.

Eve Troeh, of member station WWNO in New Orleans, joins us now with more details. And Eve, first, refresh our memories. Walk us quickly through the basics of this case.

EVE TROEH, BYLINE: Well, this happened in 2005, about a week after Katrina hit. At that time, the city was flooded, law and order were completely broken down in most respects, and these officers responded to the call of an officer down. When they arrived on the scene at the Danziger Bridge, which is the namesake of this case now, they shot at two families they found there.

They killed two people. They injured others and then an investigator falsified police reports and the police actually said the families were firing at them. Then the ruling came down in 2011 that the families were unarmed and the investigation was corrupt and the officers were sentenced to anything from 6 to 65 years in prison. And this was felt in the city as a major civil rights victory, you know, that the police were not above the law.

SIEGEL: So why today's reversal? What did the judge base his ruling on?

TROEH: Well, it's quite a ruling. It's a 120-page plus document and the judge found that prosecutors for the U.S. attorney's office were polluting the case. They were actually making anonymous online comments at Nola.com and that's the major news website in town for the Times Picayune newspaper. So under anonymous handles, they were writing things like these cops are murderers and should be put in Angola and that's while the proceedings were happening...

SIEGEL: Angola being the prison in Louisiana.

TROEH: Yes, the penitentiary here, exactly. And one of the prosecutors found to be making these comments was actually charged with being sure the case wasn't tainted. In the ruling, the judge seems really upset about her behavior. He says, while she took the stand to detail everything she was doing to ensure a fair case, she was secretly, he says, fanning the flames of those burning to see to the officer convicted.

And so, all that impropriety just warrants a new trial.

SIEGEL: And Eve, I understand this relates to an earlier case about online comments that took down a well-known U.S. attorney in New Orleans. What's that about?

TROEH: Well, late last year, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten resigned after it came to light that his prosecutors were posting anonymous comments under Nola.com, some of the same people involved in this case. Now, he'd been in that role for 28 years and he was really something of an icon in New Orleans and around the area. And so, since it came to light that those prosecutors were making those comments, you know, they followed those handles back in time, back to previous stories.

And the defense lawyers in this case, involving the former officers for NOPD, they found some online comments, they followed the thread and this is where it's lead.

SIEGEL: As you said, this was a very high profile case, very emotional case in New Orleans. How does overturning the conviction affect the city?

TROEH: It's very disheartening. You know, the families who were the victims of these shootings, it had took them so long to get what looked like justice and it feels like now that's been taken away. It takes the city back to that heart-breaking time right after Katrina. You know, not only does it take us back to a moment of shame for the New Orleans Police Department but then it also casts shame on an office that we thought for a long time was, you know, the knight in shining armor, the U.S. attorney's office.

So it's a really difficult time to have two institutions having all this doubt cast upon them now.

SIEGEL: Okay, Eve, thank you very much. That's Eve Troeh, a reporter with member station WWNO in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.