A federal judge has rejected a request to open up a raft of sealed documents in the Danziger Bridge case, meaning that a large swath of the record in one of the biggest local court cases in recent memory may escape public scrutiny indefinitely.
The motion to unseal the documents, some of which address the online commenting scandal that threw the Danziger prosecution into chaos, came from a lawyer for one of the former police officers convicted in the case. It drew no written opposition from lawyers for the government.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt left no doubt about his dim view of the motion, giving a total of nine reasons why the documents should remain sealed for the time being. And he suggested that some of them, if not all, will remain in the vault forever.
Among the documents that appear unlikely to see the light of day: the reports compiled by special prosecutor John Horn, who was assigned to investigate possible prosecutorial misconduct by Justice Department lawyers. The Horn inquiry was ordered in the wake of revelations that top officials in then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s office had been posting opinions online about the targets of federal investigations at nola.com, using pseudonyms.
Though most of the misconduct involved attorneys who had little, if any, connection to the Danziger case, Engelhardt ruled it was grounds to toss out the guilty verdicts against five former New Orleans police officers who were tried in 2011. That set the stage for the five to plead guilty two weeks ago in deals that called for far shorter prison sentences than they originally had received.
While Engelhardt did not mention Horn’s findings by name, he appeared to be describing them when he wrote that “some of the documents sealed in this litigation were compiled upon order of this court, for use only by this court. Confidential reports presented to the court, or responding to the court’s further orders/inquiries, were submitted outside of the record and shall remain confidential as investigatory results.”
Engelhardt’s order took issue with the very premise of the motion seeking the blanket unsealing, which was filed by Tim Meche, a lawyer for former Officer Anthony Villavaso. The judge notes that Meche’s contention that the Danziger case is “concluded” is wrong, given that charges remain pending against a lone defendant, former Sgt. Gerard Dugue.
Dugue is accused of abetting the cover-up of the shootings by police on the bridge a week after Hurricane Katrina. He was tried once, in 2012, but Engelhardt declared a mistrial when a prosecutor uttered the name of another case that was supposed to remain off-limits. Prosecutors have not said whether they intend to retry him.
Englehardt’s six-page ruling also says prosecutors — who filed no written opposition to Meche’s motion and who told The Advocate through a spokeswoman that they didn’t oppose it — actually do oppose a “blanket unsealing of documents” in the case. Rather, the judge said, prosecutors would like to see unsealing considered “on a more individualized basis.”
Engelhardt gave a number of other reasons for denying the motion, including the possibility that unsealing could affect ongoing civil litigation filed by relatives of the victims and that “further inquiry or action” could be required under the rules of professional conduct for Louisiana attorneys.
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.