NEW ORLEANS -- The federal judge who presided over the Danziger Bridge trial during which five officers were convicted of civil rights violations has left the door open for a new trial based on blog comments and possible prosecutorial misconduct by high ranking members of the U.S. Attorney's Office.
In an order issued Monday, Judge Kurt Engelhardt said he is awaiting the results of the newly expanded U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the blogging scandal before ruling on the prison defendants' motion for a new trial.
Prosecutor Sal Perricone resigned after being exposed as a blogger on the NOLA web site under several aliases. It initially appeared the scandal would end with Perricone, but two weeks ago, former First Assistant Jan Mann was demoted after she was exposed as a blogger two weeks ago. She is on leave and has not returned to work.
Both prosecutors commented on a wide range of cases being handled by their office, as well as disparaging remarks about a host of public officials.
As a result of the most recent revelations by Mann, the Danziger defendants are re-urging a review of their request for a new trial. Their initial request, filed under seal in May, argued that the government leaked information to the media as part of a 'secret public relations campaign' in an effort to sway public opinion against the New Orleans Police Department.
Following their convictions in the summer of 2011, Judge Kurt Engelhardt sentenced Sgt. Kenneth Bowen to 40 years in prison, Sgt. Robert Gisevius to 40 years, Officer Robert Faulcon to 65 years, and Officer Anthony Villavaso to 38 years.
The fifth officer, Sgt. Archie Kaufman, was sentenced to six years after being convicted of masterminding a cover-up.
In his ruling Monday, Engelhardt expressed concerns over the most recent blog revelations.
'Unfortunately, from the Court's perspective, more questions abound than ever about Perricone, former first AUSA Mann, and possibly others,' Engelhardt wrote.
'In light of this backdrop, along with the still unknown extent to which AUSA Perricone, first AUSA Mann, and perhaps others, took liberties with knowledge possessed through positions of authority in the United States Attorney's Office, the court believes further inquiry is warranted,' stated Engelhardt later in his ruling. 'The court will not simply turn a blind eye toward such matters of consequence.'
During a discussion with all counsel participating, First AUSA Mann indicated her belief that certain individuals, perhaps even employees of this Court, posted opinions on nola.com. Finding this assertion quite unsettling over the next few days, the undersigned hand delivered a letter to First AUSA Mann on October 16, 2012, making the following request:
'I am writing to request that U.S. Attorney's Office personnel, both now and in the future, provide me with the identities of any persons employed in this district by the court or any of the related agencies, e.g., Probation Office and U.S. Marshals Service, posting information about pending court proceedings to the extent it can be ascertained with reliable factual information. As you know, I have been and remain keenly interested in maintaining the integrity of the court's processes, including the handling of sensitive information (which may be confidential), as well as the public's perception that all court proceedings are handled in a fair and impartial manner by those involved in them, including court personnel. I trust that Jim [Letten] and you share my interest.'
On October 19, 2012, First AUSA Mann responded by letter:
'I am writing in response to your October 16, 2012 letter requesting personnel of the U.S. Attorney's Office advise you if we ever know about a court employee improperly posting. To clarify, I did not intend to cast aspersions on anyone in particular but rather was suggesting to the defense attorneys that 'he who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone. In what I believed was a philosophical discussion after the conclusion of the status conference, I suppose I rather inarticulately suggested that post-Perricone I have concluded that there were individuals at every level who were making comments anonymously on nola.com (not necessarily divulging confidential information but voicing their opinions). Prior to the Perricone incident, I was not a follower of nola.com postings and had no real sense of what was happening there. Since then, I have read most of the articles and accompanying comments in which Perricone participated and also have had discussion with folks who bring up the subject when they find out where I work. I merely meant to say that the defense attorneys were being broadly judgmental to assert that the government alone had been posting about cases and they should acknowledge that their own criminal defense bar and others including employees of the various courthouses were possibly doing so as well. I believe that the Perricone incident was a valuable teaching moment for everyone about the perils of the internet, recognizing depression and burnout and several other of life's pitfalls. I find interesting, when I have the luxury of separating myself from it, the First Amendment implications as well as issues of freedom of the press and other policy and practical considerations. In trying to express these thoughts about human failings and flaws, about hypocrisy and hidden agendas, I did not intend to suggest that anyone else in particular was posting. If I was so perceived, I regret it. We are now keenly aware of potential for individuals posting and will remain vigilant for abuses.'
Mann's letter came several weeks before she was exposed for writing her own blog posts on NOLA.com under the alias 'eweman.'