NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Associated Press on Monday joined a New Orleans newspaper in urging a federal judge to unseal court documents related to a Justice Department probe of alleged prosecutorial misconduct in its investigation of deadly police shootings that happened after Hurricane Katrina.
AP attorneys argued in a court filing that the public's interest in monitoring the profile case "cannot be overstated."
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt hasn't ruled on The Times-Picayune's Aug. 6 request to intervene in the case against five current or former police officers who were convicted of civil rights violations stemming from the shootings on a New Orleans bridge less than a week after the 2005 storm.
The Times-Picayune and AP are seeking access to sealed court filings and transcripts of closed-door hearings that Engelhardt held after ordering federal authorities to investigate the source of leaked information about the case.
"As The Times-Picayune's memorandum already demonstrates, the First Amendment's qualified right of public access to judicial proceedings and records in criminal cases applies regardless of the public status of the defendant, the nature of the crimes charged, or any allegations of prosecutorial misconduct," AP lawyers wrote.
During a hearing in June 2012, Engelhardt said it appeared federal prosecutors didn't conduct a "full-blown investigation" after AP and The Times-Picayune published articles about former New Orleans Police Lt. Michael Lohman's anticipated guilty plea while his case was under seal. In December 2012, the Justice Department appointed one of its prosecutors from Georgia to investigate the leaks and ensure compliance with Engelhardt's order.
Police shot and killed two unarmed people and wounded four others on Sept. 4, 2005, at the Danziger Bridge before engaging in a cover-up designed to make the shootings appear justified.
Lohman and four other former officers pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up and are serving prison sentences. The five former officers convicted at trial in 2011 on charges arising from the shootings were sentenced by Engelhardt to prison terms of up to 65 years.
Attorneys for the officers convicted at trial claim that a series of leaks to the media, including about Lohman's guilty plea, were part of a "secret public relations campaign" designed to influence the pool of prospective jurors. They have asked Engelhardt to order a new trial.
"Not only is the federal prosecutors' conduct questioned in the post-conviction proceedings, but a substantial allegation of intentional jury tainting has been made," AP attorneys wrote.
Former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten resigned in December 2012 after two of his top deputies acknowledged they had been posting anonymous comments on nola.com, The Times-Picayune's companion website, about cases their office had handled, including the Danziger Bridge probe.
Several months before his resignation, Letten had told Engelhardt he didn't authorize anyone from his staff to leak information about Lohman's case and was furious when the reports were published.