Back in December we told you about how U.S. Attorney Jim Letten — whose office handled the Eastern District of Louisiana — was forced to resign because prosecutors working beneath him were busted leaving anonymous comments online about the cases they were working and defendants accused of crimes. Over the years Letten’s office has been involved in a slew of high-profile cases, many of which involving dirty cops who were convicted for dishonoring the badge in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps the most high profile case involved the shootings of a number of unarmed black men and women on the Danziger Bridge. It received lots of attention from the national media — Frontline in particular covered the case extensively — and in 2011 five New Orleans cops were convicted on a myriad of charges connected to the bridge shootings and sentenced to stiff prison terms. The convictions closed the door on a ugly chapter in New Orleans history. It was, in the words of the New York Times‘ Campbell Robertson, “a decisive close to a case that has haunted this city since most of it lay underwater nearly six years ago.”
But that is no longer the case: today a federal judge overturned the convictions of the cops involved in the Danziger shootings, all because a few members of Jim Letten’s office, and a U.S. Justice Department attorney based in Washington D.C., couldn’t resist posting anonymous comments about the cases and the defendants on Nola.com, the website of the New Orleans Times Picayune.
In a ruling handed down late this morning, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt called the case of the trolling prosecutors “a legal odyssey unlike any other” and ordered new trials for Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon, Anthony Villavaso and Arthur Kaufman, all of whom have been serving time.
“This case started as one featuring allegations of brazen abuse of authority, violation of the law, and corruption of the criminal justice system; unfortunately, though the focus has switched from the accused to the accusors, it has continued to be about those very issues,” Engelhardt wrote. “After much reflection, the Court cannot journey as far as it has in this case only to ironically accept grotesque prosecutorial misconduct in the end.” He then went on to add that “the government’s actions, and initial lack of candor and credibility thereafter, is like scar tissue that will long evidence infidelity to the principles of ethics, professionalism, and basic fairness and common sense necessary to every criminal prosecution, wherever it should occur in this country.”
Why would federal prosecutors post anonymous comments online about cases and defendants? Well, to reiterate what I said months ago, presumably because they felt that by doing so they could influence public opinion on certain cases, and thereby possibly influence juries. Or maybe for a secret thrill. Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see what the fallout from this is, both for the Danziger case and the criminal justice system in general in the age of the internet.