The five New Orleans officers whose convictions were vacated, from left: Robert Faulcon Jr., Robert Gisevius Jr., Kenneth Bowen, Anthony Villavaso II, and Arthur Kaufman. AP
A federal judge has ordered a new trial for five former New Orleans police officers convicted of civil rights violations stemming from deadly shootings of two unarmed people after Hurricane Katrina. The judge concluded that the case had been tainted by "grotesque prosecutorial misconduct."
In his ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt said at least three government attorneys posted anonymous comments on nola.com, the website of the The Times-Picayune newspaper, creating a "carnival atmosphere" that perverted justice in the case.
"The use of the media, in ways that might very well prejudice defendants, and create an overriding tenor of guilt in the community long before trial, must be avoided," he said in ordering the new trial.
Former police Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius, and former officers Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon, had been convicted on charges related to the shooting and cover-up. They were sentenced last year by Engelhardt to prison terms ranging from 38 to 65 years. Retired Sgt. Retired Sgt. Arthur "Archie" Kaufman, who was assigned by the police department to investigate the case, was not charged in the shootings but was convicted of orchestrating the cover-up and sentenced to six years in prison.
Romell Madison, whose mentally disabled brother, Ronald, was one of two unarmed people gunned down on the Danziger Bridge in 2005, said the family is "extremely disappointed" and urged the Justice Department to appeal the judge's ruling.
"Our fight for justice continues," Madison said in a statement.
Sherrel Johnson, whose 17-year-old son, James Brissette, was also shot and killed by police on the bridge, said she was stunned by the ruling.
"Is my son going to get a new lease on life? Is he coming back? What about the mental anguish that these people put us through?" she asked during a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "It is not fair to make us sit through that again."
Less than a week after Katrina made landfall in 2005, police shot and killed the two unarmed men and wounded four others on the bridge. Authorities said the police officers were responding to a call for assistance about two other officers being hurt under the bridge.
"There is grave concern over whether justice is going to be served," Community Book Center volunteer and founder of Peace Ministry, Denise Graves, told Al Jazeera.
"We would really like to have some resolution at the same time, and I'm worried about what re-opening this case is going to do to the family emotionally," she said. "That's what people are talking about when they come into the store."
Prosecutors said Faulcon fatally shot 40-year-old Ronald Madison in the back on the west side of the bridge as he and his brother ran from gunfire on the bridge's east side, where 17-year-old James Brissette had been shot and killed by police.
Former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten resigned in December 2012 after two of his top deputies -- Sal Perricone and Jan Mann -- acknowledged they had posted anonymous comments on nola.com about cases their office had handled, including the bridge investigation.
Engelhardt said some of the jurors in the trial had written on questionnaires that they had been reading news about the case on the same website where the comments were posted.
Still, Judge Engelhardt wrote, "retrying this case is a very small price to pay in order to protect the validity of the verdict in this case, the institutional integrity of this court, and the criminal justice system as a whole."
He quoted from some of the messages, including Perricone.
"Perricone, under his several monikers, habitually posted comments portraying the NOPD (New Orleans Police Department), its superintendent Warren Riley, and its officers and personnel in the most negative and vitriolic way," Engelhardt said.
Other messages referred to Riley, who is black, as "racist," "inept" and "delusional," Engelhardt said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said prosecutors were disappointed.
"We are reviewing the decision and considering our options," she said in a statement.
Bennett Gershman, professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y. and an expert on legal misconduct, said it is unprecedented for a case to be thrown out because of online comments by prosecutors.
"This is a stunning case that has no equal," Gershman said. "The Justice Department's reputation has been seriously tarnished by what the judge said. There's no question about that."
Graves said this case is not the only case New Orleans residents found "cloudy" or felt that people weren't being held accountable for.
"There are some systemic changes that are required in the justice system," Graves told Al Jazeera.
"We want to uphold those who are doing a wonderful job, but we are calling for reforms. If an officer is under duress, they need to get time off and psychological evaluations -- they're not machines, they're human."
In addition to being more aware of officers' mental health, Graves said that she proposes community advisory groups that be in dialogue with the police force and let them know of any concerns they might have.
She also suggested that officers take part in cultural awareness education and trainings so that they can better understand the communities they are engaging with -- rather than being influenced by stereotypes about that particular community.
Wire services with additional reporting by Renee Lewis.