A federal judge on Friday refused to trim the 17-year prison sentence he handed three years ago to Gregory McRae, a former New Orleans police officer who admitted setting Henry Glover’s body aflame inside a car on the Algiers levee in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina but who has steadfastly denied knowing Glover had been shot by a fellow cop.
In resentencing McRae, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk dismissed an argument from attorney Michael Fawer that the burning of Glover’s body was simply the act of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress in the harrowing days that followed the storm and not an attempt to hide anything or protect another officer.
Africk stressed McRae’s failure for years to acknowledge what he did, despite knowing that the body was a homicide victim. He chided McRae for claiming “pride” as the reason he stayed quiet even after Glover’s shooting and burning at the hands of 4th District police officers came to light in 2008, three years after the events.
“Your entire course of conduct evidences cover-up as opposed to stress disorder. You were callous and cold-hearted for allowing the Glover family to continue to suffer as they wondered in despair what had happened to their beloved Henry,” Africk said.
The burning alone, Africk added, “does not begin to explain” the crime. He noted twice that Glover’s body was the only one burned in the wake of the storm.
“You did not merely burn a corpse. You, a law enforcement officer, burned a corpse to obstruct justice,” he said.
In once again handing McRae a 207-month sentence, Africk also made it abundantly clear that he thought a jury in December got it wrong when, in a retrial, it acquitted former Officer David Warren of shooting Glover.
From behind a gate at the rear of an Algiers strip mall, Warren peered into the scope of his personal assault rifle and downed Glover with a single shot, in what he testified was a fearful response to a charge by Glover, 31, who had pulled up in the back parking lot with another man, Bernard Calloway, to retrieve some stolen goods.
Africk dismissed Warren’s story Friday as he addressed the issue of whether McRae’s new sentence should take into account Warren’s acquittal by a jury that heard nothing of the burning of Glover’s body nor an alleged cover-up.
He found that under a lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard, Warren committed manslaughter, having lacked any justification for firing on Glover.
“The court continues to believe that Warren gunned down Glover because Warren believed Glover was a looter,” Africk said. “The court remains convinced that Glover posed no immediate threat to Warren or any other individual and that he was merely an unarmed, non-dangerous man, whom Warren shot dead.”
In any case, Africk deemed Warren’s acquittal “irrelevant” to McRae’s sentencing. What matters, he said, is that McRae was found guilty of obstructing a manslaughter investigation.
The resentencing was prompted by a 2012 decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned Warren’s conviction, saying he was unfairly marred by a “spillover effect” from evidence presented during the same trial against four other officers over the burning and alleged cover-up.
The appeals court also found insufficient evidence for McRae’s conviction on one of four counts for which he was sentenced. But it upheld the convictions against McRae for use of fire to commit a felony, obstruction of a federal investigation, and depriving a man of his right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
The appeals court also said Lt. Travis McCabe, who was accused of whitewashing a report on the shooting, should get a new trial. Africk tossed out McCabe’s conviction a few months after his conviction based on new evidence that turned up after the original trial. Federal prosecutors in February dropped the case against McCabe, who has been reinstated to the force.
Almost nine years later, Friday’s sentencing appears to mark an end to a prosecution that once suggested a vast conspiracy among Fourth District officers to paper over the shooting and keep Glover’s burning under wraps.
What started with criminal allegations against five officers has ended with just one — McRae — still in federal prison. Two other officers, Dwayne Scheuermann and Lt. Robert Italiano, were acquitted at the 2010 trial.
McRae’s attorney, Michael Fawer, argued that Africk should veer from federal sentencing guidelines that demanded a minimum 10-year term, based on a lack of evidence that the veteran officer knew the body he burned had been shot by a fellow officer.
“There’s no knowledge on his part that it was Warren who did the killing. There’s no reason for him to have covered up an anonymous homicide,” Fawer told the judge. “But there is an explanation. He tried to give it at trial: It had to do with his mental state.”
At his trial in 2010, McRae admitted that he decided to burn the body in the Chevy Malibu that a passerby, William Tanner, had driven to a police outpost set up at Habans Elementary School.
Tanner had come across Glover lying shot and bleeding in the street near the strip mall where Warren had shot him.
McRae said he was exhausted and traumatized by post-Katrina carnage and chaos — and eager to avoid the stench of another decaying body — when he shut the windows, turned on the air conditioning and drove the Malibu to the levee. He tossed a road flare into the car, then fired a single shot to be sure it ignited.
McRae, clad in orange jail scrubs, his head shaved, stood up before Africk resentenced him Friday. He addressed Glover’s mother, Edna Glover, and other family members who sat together in the courtroom gallery, across the aisle from McRae supporters.
McRae repeated an apology and explanation he sent to the judge last month in a handwritten letter from jail.
“What I did was shameful, callous and thoughtless, but it was not done to cover up anyone’s wrongdoing,” he said. “Ms. Glover, I’m sorry for the loss of your son. I’m sorry for the actions involved, and I’m sorry it took you years to determine the horrible details of his death. That was never my intention. ... I will continue to pray for your family.”
McRae then turned to the judge, saying he was proud to have served in the city in the days after the storm.
“I want you to understand and believe my actions, terribly wrongful as they were, do not define me as a human being,” he said.
Family members in the courtroom blew kisses to McRae as he waited to be sentenced.
Scheuermann, who looked on from the courtroom gallery, said afterward that he wasn’t aware McRae planned to burn the car with Glover’s body in the backseat when he followed McRae to the levee that day.
Scheuermann, who is no longer on the force, said the plan was simply to remove the corpse from Habans after higher-ups in the NOPD declined to come to the site right away to handle the apparent homicide.
“I said, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Scheuermann recounted of his conversation with McRae after the car was set afire. “He said something to the effect of, ‘I’m tired of seeing bodies.’ ”
Scheuermann insists that none of the cops who were prosecuted in the case made the connection between Glover’s body and the shooting at the strip mall until the investigative reporting site ProPublica broke the story in late 2008.
Rebecca Glover, the victim’s aunt, said she wasn’t buying it. She called Scheuermann “the one that got away.”
She also dismissed McRae’s apology and praised the sentence Africk handed him, saying, “Somebody finally told the truth.”
Glover also said she’s not done fighting to drag Warren back to court. She said she plans to meet with both Orleans Parish Coroner Jeffrey Rouse and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, seeking to drum up a state murder prosecution.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.