23rd September 2013 · 0 Comments
By Edmund W. Lewis
The struggle to bring justice, democracy and equal protection under the law to New Orleans took another hit last week with a federal judge’s decision to grant the former NOPD officers who murdered two unarmed civilians and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge on Sept. 4, 2005 a new trial.
In a fiery ruling last week blasting the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Judge Kurt Englehardt wrote that the five cops convicted and sentenced in the Danziger Bridge shootings deserve a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct involving the posting of anonymous statements on nola.com by at least three federal prosecutors.
Anyone who remembers what a daunting task it was to bring these officers to justice in the first place understands fully what a travesty of justice this is.
It isn’t that the judge’s ruling was wrong — it will simply inflict more harm and suffering on the families affected by the Danziger Bridge shootings and further erode the public’s trust in the justice system.
One has to wonder if the online postings were really just reckless and ill-conceived rantings by the three federal prosecutors caught breaking the rules — Sal Perricone, Jan Mann and Carla Dobinski — or if one or more of the prosecutors was secretly planting seeds to undermine the DOJ’s case against the five officers. Anyone who has witnessed the lengths to which the City of New Orleans, NOPD and judicial system have gone to let these officers off the hook knows that cynicism is in order.
A similar case can made for the first effort to bring these trigger-happy cops to justice by then-Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan. After the so-called “Danziger 7” turned themselves in and were inundated with throngs of supporters carrying signs that read “Heroes,” the case was ultimately dismissed by Judge Raymond Bigelow after some bit of information about the case was disclosed by an Orleans Parish prosecutor.
Was it a mistake? We may never know.
There were also some questions about employees in the criminal justice system with ties to the officers involved in the Danziger Bridge shooting. These questions were never really answered.
Those who know the stories of Shareef Cousin, Curtis Kyles and John Thompson know all too well the depths to which the NOPD and justice system will sink to accomplish their duplicitous ends. Witness intimidation, framing defendants, withholding evidence and other forms of prosecutorial misconduct are hardly new to New Orleans.
Even when police and/or prosecutors are caught violating the constitutional rights of civilians, they are seldom held accountable or required to face consequences that are commensurate with their crimes. After it was revealed that the Orleans Parish D.A.’s Office framed John Thompson for murder and sent him to death row to die for a crime prosecutors knew he didn’t commit, Thompson was exonerated and awarded $14 million in damages. Orleans Parish D.A. Leon Cannizzaro decided to appeal that court decision, telling the Supreme Court that the City of New Orleans could not afford to pay it, and essentially victimized Thompson again.
No similar argument was made when a court awarded $3.7 million to former white employees who were terminated after Orleans Parish District Eddie Jordan took office. Not only did these plaintiffs get their dinero — they got it quickly
Former NOPD Officer Joshua Colclough essentially got off “easy” earlier this summer when he pleaded guilty to killing an unarmed Wendell Allen and sentenced to four years behind bars. Four years for taking a human life, even though video footage of the incident clearly shows that the shooting was neither necessary nor justified.
Since the DOJ only decided to prosecute NOPD officers in a handful of the myriad of cases presented to them during two years of community meetings organized by Community United for Change, it is that much more reprehensible that the five cops convicted in the Danziger Bridge case will get a new trial.
As if the first trial weren’t enough of an ordeal, the families of the Danziger Bridge shooting victims and the community will have to suffer once again for the sins and mistakes of federal prosecutors.
None of these cops think they should be held accountable for taking innocent lives and harming others on the Danziger Bridge eight years ago. Nor do they think anyone with a badge should be held accountable for the murder of Henry Glover on September 2, 2005.
For those who don’t remember, Henry Glover was shot in the parking lot of a Westbank strip mall eight years ago and later finished off by NOPD cops in Algiers who were asked to assist Glover after he had been shot. The cop who shot Glover, former NOPD Officer David Warren, is also getting a new trial. Warren was granted a new trial by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the same appeals court that Judge Edith Jones, the judge who thinks Blacks and Latinos are “predisposed to crime,” sits on.
Is it any wonder there is such widespread distrust among residents for the NOPD, local judges and prosecutors? Because residents know firsthand how easily cops, prosecutors and judges bend the law to suit their agendas, many are hesitant to sentence any Orleans Parish defendants to die.
It is exasperating to think about the lengths to which those responsible for violating the human and civil rights of tax-paying, law-abiding New Orleans residents will go to get their way. We’ve seen the D.A.’s office actually hide key witnesses from defense attorneys and hide police reports and other evidence from those same attorneys, as they did in the case of Shareef Cousin. (Incidentally, Judge Raymond Bigelow, the same judge who tossed out the “Danziger 7” indictment in 2008, was the judge who sent Shareef Cousin to death row for a murder he didn’t commit, telling him, “I order you to die.”) We’ve seen Judge Raymond Bigelow throw out the indictment of the “Danziger 7” because of a misstep by a local prosecutor. We’ve seen that the U.S. attorney was in no particular hurry to launch a federal investigation of the Danziger Bridge shootings after the D.A.’s case fell apart. We’ve seen U.S. Fifth Circuit Court Judge Edith Jones make racist remarks earlier this year about Blacks and Latinos being “predisposed to crime” and expect to remain on the federal bench and make decisions that affect the well-being and safety of people of color.
We’ve seen the city spend millions of dollars on Superdome renovations, new French Quarter sidewalks, additional streetcar lines, dog parks and bike lanes but say the city has no money to pay for NOPD and OPP consent decrees.
We’ve seen the mayor attempt to vacate the NOPD consent decree he signed and praised in 2012 by arguing that it too was tainted by the participation of federal prosecutors Sal Perricone and Jan Mann. We’ve seen the mayor say the city no longer needs a NOPD consent decree because the police department has already started reforming itself (The same police department that continues to resist changes to the detail system and watched in embarrassment as one of its own stood by and did nothing as teenagers fought recently on Canal Street.) We’ve also seen the mayor try to hedge his bets by including two people with ties to him — the Rev. Charles Southall and Tulane criminologist Dr. Peter Scharf — as local partners on the team of Hilliard Heintze, one of the vying for the post of federal NOPD consent-decree monitor. We’ve seen the mayor refuse to accept input from some of the city’s most respected Black leaders and residents about efforts to curb Black-on-Black violence and refuse to address Black leaders’ concerns about racial profiling.
We’ve seen cops who come to New Orleans every day to earn a paycheck and take on lucrative off-duty detail assignments insist that they can’t get a fair trial in the Crescent City.
We’ve seen a NOPD consent decree signed after NOPD officers Len Davis and Antoinette Frank murdered innocent people fail to reform the police department in the 1990s.
We’ve seen and read about NOPD emails instructing officers to racially profile young Black males in the French Quarter and Mid-City, culminating in the fatal shooting of Justin Sipp on March 1, 2012 and the assault by NOPD officers and state troopers on 17-year-old Ferdinand Hunt and 18-year-old Sidney Newman in the French Quarter on Feb. 10, 2013.
When it comes to securing justice for communities of color and the poor in New Orleans, it’s always been two steps forward and three steps back. But the people of this city who bear the brunt of this oppression are sick and tired of being sick and tired. That stress and fatigue are manifested in violent behavior, criminal activity, substance abuse and a major mental health crisis.
Not only is it all about winning in the Big Uneasy, it’s about winning at any cost.
An argument can be made that New Orleans is every bit as unjust and corrupt as it was before the sweeping reforms post-Katrina recovery was supposed to usher in.
Not only do we need constitutional policing; we need elected officials, judges and prosecutors who adhere to the rules set forth in the United States Constitution.
The people of New Orleans deserve capable, gifted prosecutors who fight for the rights of the people, not bored or unprofessional attorneys who spend precious time trading barbs about active cases online and attacking the character of those who incur their wrath. As legendary civil rights attorneys like the late Thurgood Marshall and Fred Gray taught us, there is little room for error or ineptitude when fighting for the constitutional rights of the oppressed.
Those responsible for this travesty— the federal prosecutors who actually posted comments online about active DOJ cases, those in the U.S. Attorney’s Office who knew about their misdeeds and said nothing, and those who tried to cover up their unethical behavior — should get more than just a slap on the wrist. They should be held accountable by the U.S. Department of Justice and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Anything less would send a mixed message to those seeking justice in New Orleans and those who think it is okay to break the rules regarding the administration of justice whenever they feel like it.
This article originally published in the September 23, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.