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Katrina Shooting Leaks Force Probe, not Retrial

(CN) - Despite prosecutorial "skullduggery," a federal judge refused to disturb the convictions against police officers involved in a controversial shooting and cover-up days after Hurricane Katrina rocked New Orleans.

Five former New Orleans police officers were found guilty in August 2011 of opening fire on civilians crossing the Danziger Bridge after their neighborhood was severely flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

The shooting killed two people, and seriously wounded four others.

In a bid for retrial, the five former officers claimed that members of the U.S. Attorney's Office prejudiced the public by leaking information to the press about the grand jury decision, status of plea negotiations and other confidential information.

They noted, for example, that the press had reported on the guilty plea of a key government witness, former Lt. Michael Lohman, a day before his hearing.

Using the handle "HenryLMencken1951," former Assistant U.S. Attorney Salvador Perricone had also declared the officers obviously guilty in numerous posts on the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper's website.

Recently, the assistant U.S. attorney who investigated the leaks and Perricone's conduct, Jan Mann, also admitted to making anonymous online posts.

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt scoffed last week about the revelations.

"Having the DOJ [Department of Justice] investigate itself will likely only yield a delayed yet unconvincing result in which no confidence can rest," he wrote. "If no wrongdoing is uncovered, it will come as a surprise to no one given the conflict of interest existing between the investigator and the investigated."

In its last report, "the government failed to even formally question the media recipients of [the leaked] information," the 50-page decision notes.

"If the DOJ were truly serious about rectifying and preventing violations of Rule 6(e), it would vigorously pursue such information," Engelhardt added. "Should the DOJ decline to seek and pursue the source of the Lohman plea leak, such unwillingness to learn the truth could favor the defendants' arguments herein, as it begs the question of the government's involvement in such leaks."

Despite the appearance of prosecutorial wrongdoing, the judge nevertheless found that the five officers do not deserve a new trial.

"Even in light of such skulduggery by the government, defendants have thus far failed to demonstrate that their convictions should be overturned as a result," he wrote.

The judge clarified that he was "unwilling to assume a 'nothing to see here - move along now' attitude," and would not rule on the defendants' motion for new trial until the Department of Justice made a serious attempt to discover the source and scope of the leaks.

"In the meantime, the court intends to follow the advice of Washington himself: 'There is but one straight course, and that is to seek truth and pursue it steadily,'" Engelhardt concluded.

One of the officers' colleagues, Gerald Dugue, had fared better after he was convicted for falsifying police reports and planting a gun at the scene.

As Dugue's case readied for trial in 2011, the court had barred prosecutors from discussing his investigation of an unrelated police-misconduct case.

When Dugue took the stand to testify about the Danziger Bridge shootings, however, the prosecutor questioned him about the unrelated case during cross-examination.

The prosecutor claimed later that she thought the judge had given her clearance to ask by nodding and raising his eyebrow. The judge denied that suggestion and declared a mistrial. The 5th Circuit upheld that decision in August 2012, rejecting claims that the error raised double jeopardy concerns.

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