NEW ORLEANS – Call it the Katrina defense: the idea that police officers' deadly acts in the wake of the hurricane must be judged through the prism of the chaos and desperation that reigned at the time.
Whether it worked in the trial of five current or former New Orleans police officers in the shooting death of a man outside a strip mall is open for debate. One was convicted Thursday of manslaughter, another of burning the body, a third of lying about the incident. But two others were acquitted, and no one was found guilty of murdering 31-year-old Henry Glover.
The next test of Katrina's effect on police accused of crimes could come in June, when a trial is scheduled for officers charged with gunning down two people and wounding four others on a bridge less than a week after the August 2005 storm.
Claude Kelly, a lawyer for one of six current or former officers awaiting trial in the Danziger Bridge shootings and an alleged cover-up, said defense attorneys aren't trying to use the hurricane as a blanket defense.
"But is Katrina a factor? Of course it is," he added. He accused the Justice Department of trying to "wish away" Katrina.
"They act as if Katrina did not happen. They ignore the reality of it," Kelly said.
Prosecutors insist Katrina offers no excuses, but attorneys for the officers charged in Glover's death had urged jurors to keep the storm in mind when judging their actions. Officers endured harsh, dangerous conditions during the storm's aftermath to help thousands of people trapped in the flooded city for days, defense attorneys said.
Former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg said jurors may have considered post-storm conditions when they decided to convict officer David Warren of manslaughter rather than murder for shooting Glover on Sept. 2, 2005 — four days after Katrina hit. But it didn't seem to help Officer Gregory McRae, who was convicted of burning Glover's body in a car.
McRae testified he set the fire because he was weary of seeing dead bodies strewn across the city after Katrina and didn't want to let another corpse rot.
"The jury didn't seem to buy that one whit," Rosenberg said.
Warren said Glover and another man pulled up in what appeared to be a stolen truck and ran toward a gate that would have given them access to the mall, ignoring his commands to stop. He testified that he thought he saw a gun in Glover's hand and feared for his life when he shot Glover with an assault rifle from a second-floor balcony.
Prosecutors accused Warren of shooting an unarmed man in the back and tried to portray him as trigger-happy and obsessed with guns. Warren's partner that day testified that the two men weren't armed and didn't pose a threat.
The jury also convicted Lt. Travis McCabe of writing a false report on the shooting and of lying to the FBI and a grand jury.
Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann was cleared of charges he helped McRae burn the body. Scheuermann and McRae also were acquitted of charges that they beat men who drove Glover to a makeshift police compound in search of help for the dying man. Former Lt. Robert Italiano was acquitted of charges he submitted the false report and lied to the FBI.
Scheuermann's attorney, Jeffrey Kearney, said the defense attorneys didn't try to invoke Katrina as an excuse.
"However, the Katrina conditions are important to consider when determining why certain individuals made certain decisions in the case," he added.
Eric Hessler, a lawyer for one of the officers charged in the Danziger Bridge shootings, said he believes the jury based its verdict on the evidence "and not the hype produced by the Justice Department."
"The Justice Department has been trying to paint the defendants with a broad brush of incompetence and brutality and hope that's a substitute for evidence," he said.
A total of 20 current or former New Orleans police officers have been charged this year in a series of Justice Department civil rights investigations. All but two are charged in incidents that occurred during Katrina's aftermath. The probe of Glover's death was the first of those cases to be tried.
In the Danziger Bridge shootings, officers are charged with shooting unarmed residents crossing the span in search of food and supplies from a supermarket. Nineteen-year-old James Brissette and Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, were killed.
Five former officers have pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up that allegedly involved bogus reports and a plot to plant a gun. Two of those officers already have been sentenced to prison.
Steve London, an attorney for one of the officers charged in the Danziger Bridge case, said he was encouraged by Thursday's verdict.
"I believe the jury took into account the events that were occurring at that time, understanding the stresses that were placed upon certain of these officers," he said.
Warren, McRae and McCabe are scheduled to be sentenced March 24. Warren has been jailed since his indictment earlier this year. Prosecutors had asked for McRae and McCabe to be jailed while they await sentencing, but U.S. District Judge Lance Africk ruled Friday that they can remain free on bond until then.
Warren faces a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life in prison for manslaughter, which under federal sentencing guidelines draws a shorter term than a murder conviction would. McRae and McCabe face maximum sentences of 60 and 30 years, respectively.
McCabe and McRae have been suspended without pay. Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said Scheuermann would remain on an administrative assignment. Sgt. Jeff Sandoz and Sgt. Ronald Ruiz, who were not charged in the Glover case but admitted lying to federal investigators, also have been placed on administrative assignments.
Associated Press writer Mary Foster contributed to this report.
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