Follow live updates from the court hearing Wednesday morning here:
In a development that apparently will bring a turbulent saga of nearly 11 years to a close, five former New Orleans police officers are expected to enter a federal courtroom Wednesday morning and plead guilty to reduced charges in the shootings of civilians on the Danziger Bridge in the days after Hurricane Katrina and a subsequent cover-up meant to justify the gunfire.
Sources with knowledge of the deal said the five cops — former Sgts. Arthur “Archie” Kaufman, Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius and former Officers Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso — will enter their pleas before U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, who set aside their convictions three years ago amid a scandal over online commenting by federal prosecutors.
It is unclear whether the men will be sentenced Wednesday, but the resolution of the charges is expected to result in far shorter prison terms than those Engelhardt meted out after the original 2011 trial.
Four of the five officers — all save Kaufman — were directly involved in the shootings on the bridge six days after Katrina that left two unarmed people dead and four others badly wounded.
Those four officers all received sentences of at least 38 years before their convictions were tossed out, and they have been in prison without bail for nearly six years.
Kaufman, the detective accused of masterminding the cover-up, did not participate in the shootings, which occurred after a group of officers heard a radio report that someone was firing on another officer. Kaufman has been free on bail throughout the case’s long life.
The deal involving the five former officers still leaves one ex-cop in limbo: Gerard Dugue, who was accused of abetting the cover-up and was tried separately from the other officers in 2012. Engelhardt declared a mistrial in that case; it has not been set for retrial, but the charges remain pending.
The end of the Danziger case also may mark the final bit of fallout from the online-commenting scandal that rocked the U.S. Attorney’s Office starting in March 2012.
It began when landfill owner Fred Heebe, the target of a lengthy federal investigation, revealed in a civil lawsuit that Sal Perricone, a top lieutenant of then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, had been posting critical comments — under invented names — about Heebe and other people in the office’s crosshairs.
The scandal mushroomed, eventually taking down Jan Mann — Letten’s second-in-command who also was unmasked as an online commenter — and then Letten himself. And it spread to the Danziger case, in part because one of Heebe’s attorneys, Billy Gibbens, also represented one of the officers charged in the bridge shootings.
Engelhardt took a keen interest in the commenting scandal, along with leaks in the case, and eventually directed the Justice Department to assign a special prosecutor to investigate the matter. Engelhardt was finally so disturbed that he threw out the Danziger verdicts in 2013, citing “grotesque prosecutorial misconduct.”
Engelhardt has kept many of the legal filings in the case under seal, including the findings of the special prosecutor looking into the online commenting scandal, and attorneys for the five officers have been tight-lipped.
Talk of a deal to resolve the Danziger case began percolating after a federal appeals court panel in August upheld Engelhardt’s order for a new trial, and an evenly divided full appeals court in February declined to reconsider the government’s bid to restore the convictions.
The speculation has grown since then, fueled in part by the seeming absence of progress toward a new trial in the case.
Engelhardt delayed action on a motion the four jailed former cops filed last month seeking their release on bail pending a new trial.
Meanwhile, there was no word in the public record on an expected decision by Justice Department lawyers on whether they would seek a U.S. Supreme Court review of the appeals court’s decision.
It is also unclear whether two special prosecutors who reported to Engelhardt on the online posting scandal had responded to his order for them to submit affidavits by April 4.
Engelhardt had ordered the prosecutors, John Horn and Charysse Alexander, to verify when they first knew about the online postings of a third Justice Department official, Karla Dobinski, and to say who in the Justice Department had reviewed a report they submitted to the judge three years ago.
Engelhardt was seeking the information ostensibly so he could rule on a pending motion by the former officers to disqualify the lead trial attorney in the Danziger case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bobbi Bernstein.
Court records show Bernstein was taken off the case April 1.
A status conference in the case was scheduled to be held last week behind closed doors.
U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, who has declined to comment on the case, has scheduled a news conference for 11 a.m. Wednesday, although the announcement doesn’t specify the subject matter.
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.