A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that five former New Orleans police officers should get a new trial on charges related to the shooting of unarmed residents after Hurricane Katrina.
The case involves a low point for the police force in the chaos following a natural disaster and for a team of federal prosecutors whose conduct was described by one appeals judge as "sleazy."
Just a week after the 2005 hurricane, six people crossing a bridge over the city's industrial canal were shot by police answering an emergency call. Two of the pedestrians were killed, and the four others were wounded.
Four officers charged in the shootings and a fifth former officer was charged with covering up the details. The officers claimed they were defending themselves. After a high-profile trial, they were convicted on a host of charges related to the shooting incident.
But in 2013, the convictions were thrown out by a federal judge who ordered a new trial, ruling that anonymous Internet postings by three high-ranking federal prosecutors before and during the trial unfairly prejudiced the case.
By a vote of 2-1, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the order for a new trial Tuesday.
In a blistering opinion, the court said the conduct of the prosecutors, as well as the government's resistance to a full disclosure of the misconduct, infected the entire legal process.
"The online anonymous postings, whether the product of lone wolf commentators or an informal propaganda campaign, gave the prosecution a tool for public castigation of the defendants that it could not have used against them otherwise," the court said.
"In so doing, it deprived them of a fair trial."