More than two years after an FBI agent fatally shot a man in New Orleans East, a federal magistrate said Thursday he knows of “no good reason” why the agent’s identity should continue to be shielded while the government defends his actions in a related wrongful-death lawsuit.
U.S. Magistrate Joseph Wilkinson Jr. summoned attorneys for the Justice Department and the family of Allen Desdunes — whose July 2013 shooting death remains shrouded in mystery — to appear before him next week and explain why the agent’s name should remain sealed more than a year into the civil litigation over Desdunes’ death.
“I am aware of no good reason, in fact or in law, why the name of this defendant should continue to be kept secret,” Wilkinson wrote in an order published Thursday. “If any particular provision of the Privacy Act, which the government apparently relies upon, stretches so far as to undermine the important public nature of the court’s public record, it has not been cited to me.”
Wilkinson’s order came a few days after The New Orleans Advocate published an article examining the conflicting practices of area law enforcement agencies on identifying officers involved in fatal shootings.
While the New Orleans Police Department and Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office routinely release the names of officers who use deadly force, the federal government has gone to great lengths to protect the name of the FBI agent who fatally shot Desdunes during a drug investigation.
The names of three other FBI agents and four New Orleans police officers involved in the case have been made public during the civil proceedings. But the agent who fatally shot Desdunes near a Motel 6 on the Interstate 10 Service Road has been referred to only as “John Doe #1” in court papers.
The lawsuit claims Desdunes was unarmed and that his death was racially motivated.
An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the case last week, citing the pending litigation. The Justice Department has said it will not charge the FBI agent for killing Desdunes, but the government has declined a Freedom of Information Act request seeking investigative reports about the incident.
Wilkinson, in his two-page order, said an earlier protective order he allowed in the civil case had been intended to facilitate out-of-court discovery between the parties, “not the perpetual sealing of (the agent’s) name ... or any other fact in the court’s record.”
The attorneys for both the Justice Department and Desdunes’ family had petitioned Wilkinson on Tuesday to modify the terms of the protective order to allow the parties “to exchange documents and information in discovery that may refer to or contain” certain protected information. The judge denied that motion.
Stephen Haedicke, the New Orleans civil rights attorney representing Desdunes’ family, said he does not oppose disclosing the name of the FBI agent. “The reason we have agreed to these orders up to this point is to maximize our access to information in order to litigate the case,” he said.
A hearing on the matter is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.