A decade after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, flooding evacuation routes and trapping residents in their neighborhoods, a federal appeals court has set aside the convictions of five police officers accused of shooting unarmed civilians post-Katrina saying the officers did not get a fair trial in part because “adverse online comments” created an “air of bullying” and “shocking breaches of prosecutorial ethics.”
"The online anonymous postings, whether the product of lone-wolf commenters or an informal propaganda campaign, gave the prosecution a tool for public castigation of the defendants that it could not have used against them otherwise, and in so doing deprived them of a fair trial," the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled.
The officers shot and killed two unarmed men and wounded four other civilians who tried to cross the Danziger Bridge less than a week after the storm ravaged the city. The plain-clothed officers, who arrived at the scene in a Budget rental truck, were accused of lining up on the other side of the bridge and shooting the pedestrians as they crossed, including one the victims as he was fleeing back across the bridge. The officers claimed that civilians were shooting at them and that in returning fire killed or wounded innocent bystanders.
The New Orleans police were accused of making up a story that supported that scenario. Emotions were running high by the time the case went to trial in 2010 and the officers were convicted in 2011 and then sentenced in 2012.
But a district court, citing prosecutorial misconduct, ordered a new trial for “novel and extraordinary” reasons, the appeals court said. “No less than three high-ranking federal prosecutors are known to have been posting online, anonymous comments to newspaper articles about the case throughout its duration,” the 5th circuit ruling noted, calling out in particular Assistant United States Attorney, Senior Trial Counsel Sal Perricone, who “had been posting comments to Nola.com” on the Danziger Bridge and other federal cases, using various names, as well as First Assistant United States Attorney and Chief of the Office's Criminal Division Jan Mann, who also posted on the site under a moniker, “eweman.”
After a new trial was ordered, the government appealed, but the 5th Circuit, in a 2 to 1 decision, upheld the district court's ruling and remanded the case to trial, saying that "just as a mob protesting outside the courthouse has the potential to intimidate parties and witnesses, so do streams of adverse online comments."