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Prosecutors to appeal new trial ruling for New Orleans cops

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department will appeal a district judge's decision to grant a new trial to five former New Orleans police officers convicted in the killing of two unarmed people in a post-Hurricane Katrina shooting in 2005, according to court filings.

Government lawyers said in the documents filed late Thursday that they will ask the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a September 17 ruling by U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt that the officers, convicted in 2011, should be retried due to prosecutorial misconduct.

Engelhardt based his order largely on an investigation into online postings made by federal prosecutors on a local newspaper's website before and during the trial, disparaging local police and the defendants lawyers.

While the prosecutors who posted the comments were not directly involved in the police officers' trial, Engelhardt said in his ruling that the "inflammatory invectives, accusatory screeds, and vitriolic condemnations" by the commenters "should confound and alarm any reasonable observer of the criminal justice process."

The postings put the court in an "unacceptably awkward position," Engelhardt wrote.

The case arose from a September 2005 incident in which police, responding to a report of gunfire in the aftermath of Katrina, fired on unarmed people who were walking over the city's Danziger Bridge.

In addition to killing two, the shooting seriously injured four other people.

A senior U.S. Justice Department official called the case the most significant police misconduct prosecution since black motorist Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police in 1991.

Four of the officers were sentenced last year and are serving prison terms from 38 to 65 years. A fifth, sentenced to six years for trying to cover up the crimes, was released on bond after Engelhardt ordered a new trial.

(Editing by Karen Brooks; Editing by Alden Bentley)

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