Here’s a name that featured prominently in Wednesday’s two-hour federal court hearing, in which five former New Orleans cops pleaded guilty in charges stemming from the horrific post-Katrina mass shooting of unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge: Justice Department lawyer Karla Dobinski.
Here are some names that barely came up, if at all: James Brissette, the 17-year-old who died in the hail of gunfire, and Jose Holmes Jr., Susan Bartholomew, Leonard Bartholomew III and Lesha Bartholomew, who were all badly injured. Also Lance Madison, who was initially arrested and booked with attempted first-degree murder for allegedly shooting at police, right after he’d watched his developmentally disabled brother Ronald die at the hands of the police that day.
And that pretty much sums up how far off-track this high-profile case veered, at the hands of the man who oversaw the proceedings, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt.
Even had Engelhardt kept his eye on the ball, this was a complex situation.
Days following the 2005 storm, a group of cops piled into a Budget rental truck to respond to errant reports that an officer was down. Instead, they found two groups of unarmed residents, fired at them, and then instigated an elaborate cover-up. State charges fizzled before federal investigators stepped in, secured the cooperation of key inside witnesses and indicted six cops, including the five — Kenneth Bowen, Robert Faulcon Jr., Robert Gisevius Jr., Anthony Villavaso and Arthur Kaufman — who pleaded guilty this week. The first four were involved in the shootings, and Kaufman was implicated in the cover-up.
Yet Engelhardt proved so angry at off-stage misbehavior among government lawyers that he all but hijacked the proceedings to punish them. After presiding over a trial that resulted in guilty verdicts against the five cops and mandatory sentences ranging from six to 65 years, he threw out the verdict amid an online commenting scandal that never infiltrated the courtroom in any identifiable way.
The plea deal, which came after an appeals court refused to reinstate the original verdict and resulted in reduced sentences of three to 12 years, was the long-awaited culmination of the closely watched prosecution. Even so, Engelhardt still used the hearing as much to blast government lawyers as to finally put the case to rest.
Not that there are any excuses for how the prosecutors behaved. Not for local assistant U.S. attorneys Sal Perricone or Jan Mann, who kicked off the scandal by using pseudonyms to post anonymous online comments under stories about this and other prosecutions. And not for Dobinski, the Department of Justice lawyer who headed the “taint team” tasked with making sure Bowen’s immunized, compelled testimony in the aborted state case wasn’t used against him once he was charged federally. Separately from Perricone and Mann, Dobinski posted comments on nola.com under the handle “dipsos,” in which she basically pleaded from afar for other commenters to share what they’d heard in court.
Engelhardt has never offered proof that the online shenanigans damaged the prosecution or that any jurors might have seen the comments, let alone figured out that they came from inside sources.
Instead, he described a collective “21st Century carnival atmosphere” in his initial ruling, and labeled Dobinski’s behavior in particular “reckless.”
Wednesday, Engelhardt zeroed in on the decision by higher-ups in the Justice Department to not come clean once they figured out what Dobinski had done. He went after lead courtroom prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein, who had crossed him in a separate but related trial, for asking her supervisors whether she should report it and then complying with their decision not to. He likened that to the Nuremberg Defense, the claim by accused Nazi war criminals that they were just following orders.
In closing the hearing, Engelhardt got somewhat back on track. He spoke movingly about Ronald Madison, even as he gave the other victims short shrift. He pleaded with the New Orleans Police Department to become worthy of its citizens and defended the honor of the many cops who rose to the horrible circumstances after the storm. He said he hoped that, after 11 years, the blanket plea deal would bring a measure of closure.
It took way too long, in large part because of Engelhardt’s actions. But in the end, that’s about the best we can hope for.