By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors scored big victories over the past two years in a quest to pluck bad police officers from the streets of New Orleans. But legal issues and recent stumbles by the U.S. attorney raise questions about whether criminal convictions of officers will stick.
Convicted former police officer David Warren won a new trial last week in the fatal shooting of Henry Glover, whose body turned up in a burned-out car behind a river levee days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said Warren, who fired the shot that killed Glover, should have been tried separately from others charged in the case. The court also granted another of the defendants a re-trial based on new evidence.
The rulings will likely prompt appeals in other cases, including the 2011 convictions of five police officers in connection with a post-Katrina shooting on the city's Danziger Bridge that killed two unarmed civilians and wounded four others.
"Defense lawyers can smell blood in the water," said law professor Dane Ciolino of Loyola University New Orleans. "I wouldn't be surprised to see the Danziger defendants make an argument of improper failure to sever (their cases from others) as their appeals move forward."
Along with such legal issues, the city of New Orleans faces the possibility that more than a dozen post-Katrina convictions won by federal prosecutors and a big public corruption case still in the works may be endangered by revelations of possible misconduct in the U.S. attorney's office.
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten resigned on December 6 in the throes of a scandal in which members of his inner circle admitted to posting online comments, under pseudonyms, on a public message board about cases the office was prosecuting. In addition to Letten, three members of his staff who were connected with the comments have left the office.
The Danziger Bridge defendants are already seeking new trials based on negative comments about police that they say prosecutors posted on the message boards.
In an unrelated case, a former high-ranking elected official from a suburban New Orleans jurisdiction who recently pleaded guilty to public corruption charges now is asking a federal judge to reconsider the plea in light of perceived prosecutorial misconduct.
'PUBLIC OFFICIAL A'
Among other cases that could be affected, federal prosecutors appear close to bringing charges against former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on suspicion he accepted bribes from business owners in exchange for funneling city contracts to the businesses.
Several Nagin associates have signed plea deals with the government and submitted affidavits detailing the arrangements they had with a high-ranking city official identified in filings as "Public Official A."
While Nagin is not named in the documents, attorneys for at least two of the businessmen have made it clear that Public Official A is Nagin.
How serious the misconduct issue may become for the government is a question of evidence, said former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg. The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility is scrutinizing the matter and an independent investigation ordered by a judge was under way.
"The results will tell defense counsel whether they have reasonable opportunities to pursue new trials or dismissals of indictments," Rosenberg said.
He pointed to the success in the case of the late U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, whose lawyers contested his 2008 conviction for failing to report gifts from a well-connected business executive by showing that the government failed to disclose evidence. Ultimately, the U.S. attorney general asked that the charges against Stevens be dropped.
Still, Rosenberg said proving that prosecutorial misconduct occurred in New Orleans was a long shot. Defense lawyers in some federal cases were "feeling energized," he said, but the Justice Department's convictions nearly always stick.
"I suspect that the number of motions granted based upon prosecutorial misconduct are a fraction of a fraction of 1 percent," he said.
Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche said it was important to local citizens that the police officer convictions won by federal prosecutors in recent years stick.
"For too long the public has lost faith in the criminal justice system, and they're starting to see that faith restored," he said.
Noting that the civil rights cases brought by the Justice Department generally are too complex and expensive to be handled by local authorities, he said action by federal prosecutors is crucial to building support for local law enforcement.
"People need to see that if you betray the public trust, there will be a consequence," he said.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan, Vicki Allen and Xavier Briand)