(CBS/AP) - A judge has ordered that, due to "grotesque prosecutorial misconduct," five former New Orleans police officers who were convicted of civil rights violations in the fatal shooting of two unarmed people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will get a new trial.
The U.S. District judge ruled Tuesday that prosecutors' "highly unusual, extensive and truly bizarre actions" warrant throwing out the convictions of Archie Kaufman, Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso.
Four of the former officersto between 38 and 65 years in prison for shooting and killing two unarmed people and wounding four others on September 4, 2005 at the Danziger Bridge. Kaufman was sentenced to six years for his role in covering up the shooting.
Attorneys for the former officers say a series of leaks to news organizations were part of a "secret public relations campaign" that deprived their clients of a fair trial. The former officers' attorneys also cited a series of anonymous online posts by senior prosecutors. Former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten resigned in December 2012 after two of his top deputies acknowledged they had been posting anonymous comments on nola.com, the Times-Picayune's companion website, about cases their office had handled, including the Danziger Bridge investigation.
Several months before his resignation, Letten had told Engelhardt he didn't authorize anyone from his staff to leak information about Lohman's case and was furious when the reports were published.
In his opinion, Judge Kurt Englehardt, who heard the case originally, wrote: "This case started as one featuring allegations of brazen abuse of authority, violation of law and corruption of the criminal justice system; unfortunately, though the focus has switched from the accused to the accusers, it has continued to be about those very issues. 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."
During a hearing in June 2012, Engelhardt said it appeared federal prosecutors didn't conduct a "full-blown investigation" after The Associated Press and The Times-Picayune published articles about former New Orleans police officer Michael Lohman's guilty plea while his case was under seal. Lohman pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up of the shootings.