Newspaper challenges sealing of court records
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A New Orleans newspaper asked a federal judge on Tuesday to unseal court documents related to allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in the probe of a deadly police shooting after Hurricane Katrina.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt didn’t immediately rule on The Times-Picayune’s request to intervene in the case against five current or former police officers who were convicted of civil rights violations in deadly shootings on a New Orleans bridge following the 2005 storm.
The newspaper’s attorneys argue the public has a right to access sealed court filings and transcripts of hearings that Engelhardt held behind closed doors. The judge ordered prosecutors to investigate the source of leaked information about the shootings probe.
During a hearing in June 2012, Engelhardt said it appeared federal prosecutors didn’t conduct a “full-blown investigation” after The Associated Press and The Times-Picayune published articles about former New Orleans police officer Michael Lohman’s guilty plea while his case was under seal. Lohman pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up of the shootings.
Attorneys for the five former officers convicted at trial in 2011 claim a series of leaks to the media, including about Lohman’s guilty plea, were part of a “secret public relations campaign” that deprived their clients of a fair trial. They have asked Engelhardt to order a new trial.
In December 2012, the Justice Department appointed one of its prosecutors from Georgia to investigate the leaks and ensure compliance with Engelhardt’s order.
By then, the judge already had heard closed-door testimony about the alleged prosecutorial misconduct and received documents under seal from lawyers on both sides of the case.
The Times-Picayune argues all of the sealed material should be open to public scrutiny.
“Allegations of prosecutorial misconduct erode public trust in the criminal justice system; they must be addressed publicly, both to deter future misconduct and to restore public confidence, by demonstrating that such incidents do not go unchecked,” the newspaper’s lawyers wrote.
During the June 2012 hearing, former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten 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.
Letten resigned in December 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.
Less than a week after Katrina’s landfall, police shot and killed two unarmed people and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge before engaging in a cover-up designed to make the shootings appear justified. Engelhardt sentenced the five former officers to prison terms of up to 65 years.