By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday ordered a new trial for New Orleans police officers convicted of killing civilians after Hurricane Katrina, denouncing the behavior of prosecutors he said compromised the case by posting "vitriolic" comments online.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt said that before and during the trial, prosecutors had used assumed names to post online messages disparaging the New Orleans police and lawyers for the policemen. The messages appeared in a forum on www.nola.com, a website affiliated with the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper.
In a 129-page opinion, Engelhardt said some of the jurors in the trial had written on questionnaires that they had been reading news about the case on the same website where the comments were posted.
"The use of the media, in ways that might very well prejudice defendants, and create an overriding tenor of guilt in the community long before trial, must be avoided," he said in ordering the new trial.
It is unprecedented for a case to be thrown out because of online comments by prosecutors, said Bennett Gershman, professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, New York, and an expert on legal misconduct. The prosecutors engaged in "blatant, flagrant" misconduct, said Gershman, who read the judge's opinion.
"This is a stunning case that has no equal," said Gershman. "The Justice Department's reputation has been seriously tarnished by what the judge said. There's no question about that."
Four New Orleans policemen were sentenced last year to prison terms from 38 to 65 years for fatally shooting two unarmed people and wounding four others in the chaotic period after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. A fifth officer was sentenced to six years for trying to cover up the crimes.
A senior U.S. Justice Department official called the case the most significant police misconduct prosecution since black motorist Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police in 1991.
The culprits in the online messages were revealed last year after people involved in an unrelated case hired private investigators, who traced the comments to the prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office, resulting in two resignations.
Engelhardt quoted from some of the messages, including from Sal Perricone, one of the prosecutors who resigned.
"Perricone, under his several monikers, habitually posted comments portraying the NOPD (New Orleans Police Department), its superintendent Warren Riley, and its officers and personnel in the most negative and vitriolic way," Engelhardt said.
Other messages referred to Police Superintendent Riley, who is black, as "racist," "inept" and "delusional," Engelhardt said.
"The publication by DOJ (Department of Justice) employees of inflammatory invectives, accusatory screeds, and vitriolic condemnations ... should confound and alarm any reasonable observer of the criminal justice process," Engelhardt wrote.
Although the prosecutors who resigned were not directly involved in the case of the policemen, the judge wrote that their behavior placed the court in an "unacceptably awkward position."
The U.S. Justice Department issued a brief statement following the ruling: "We are disappointed with the court's ruling. We are reviewing the decision and considering our option," a spokesperson said.
Gershman said a big question is whether the government will even try to have case heard a second time.
(Reporting By Kathy Finn; Editing by Greg McCune, Gunna Dickson and Andre Grenon)