By Lee A. Daniels
Surely, there’s no little historical irony in the fact that two events occurred last week that were reminders that as far as Black Americans are concerned, justice in this country often remains, as the old saying goes, a sometime thing and a long-time thing.
The week began with the bittersweet commemoration of one of the landmark events of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s: the infamous September 15, 1963 bombing by the Ku Klux Klan of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four adolescent girls and grievously wounded many others.
Although the identity of the four men who had likely planted the bomb was almost immediately known to federal and local authorities, it wasn’t until 1977 that the ringleader was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In 2002, two of the other men (a third had died) were arrested, tried and convicted as well.
Last week ended with a shocking return to perhaps the most notorious act of misconduct of the New Orleans police in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – the Danziger Bridge incident. A federal district judge there, heatedly denouncing surreptitious postings on social media by federal prosecutors, ordered a new trial for five former New Orleans police officers who last year had been convicted of civil rights charges in that case.
The Danziger Bridge incident unfolded in the days after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city and destroyed virtually any semblance of effective government.
A group of police officers, purportedly responding to reports that officers were under fire at the bridge, drove there and opened fire on two groups of Black unarmed civilians crossing the bridge to reach a nearby shopping center. Two men, James Brisette, 17, and Ronald Madison, 40, were killed, and four others were wounded. The police immediately launched a cover-up, charging that one of the injured had tried to murder a police officer.
Their attempt quickly fell apart, amid media reports that began to lay bare a police department in complete administrative disarray and prone to acts of horrific violence against Black New Orleanians. Nonetheless, it was only after the federal Department of Justice took up the case and brought federal charges against nearly a dozen officers that five, whose actions were the most egregious, were convicted.
Last week, however, the federal judge, Kurt D. Engelhardt, who presided over the trial and meted out sentences of from six to 65 years to the officers, declared that the “highly unusual, extensive, and truly bizarre actions of” at least two federal prosecutors in the New Orleans’ U.S. District Attorney’s Office and another one in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in Washington, left him no choice but to order a new trial.
The three prosecutors – neither of whom were directly involved in the courtroom aspects of the trial – anonymously posted dozens of derogatory comments about the New Orleans police department in general, the officers under indictment, their attorneys, and some witnesses both before and during the federal trial to the city’s most popular website, Nola.com, an adjunct of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper.
In the decision, Judge Engelhardt repeatedly expressed his dismay that the federal prosecutors, bound by specific rules regarding ethical conduct, would engage in such behavior, especially since the trial jury was not sequestered while the trial was occurring. He readily acknowledged there was no way of knowing now whether individual jurors had likely been influenced either directly or indirectly by the prosecutors’ anonymous postings, and that overturning the verdicts was “indeed a bitter pill to swallow.” But he declared the prosecutors’ actions left him no choice: the integrity of the criminal justice system itself was at stake.
Reading the judge’s persuasive ruling provokes the same sense of astonishment he clearly felt that these federal prosecutors – all three of whom had years of experience – would act this way. What did they think these anonymous posting would do?
One thing they did achieve is clear. They betrayed the families of the victims of the police rampage. The families thought they could count on the federal government to bring them a small measure of comfort for what their loved ones and they themselves have endured.
It turns out they could not. Now they will have to wait yet again for justice to be done. The words of Sherrel Johnson, James Brisette’s mother, resound: “What’s going to happen to the crimes [the police] committed? Are they just going to sweep that under the carpet and forget it? My son is dead. Ronald [Madison] is dead. All the others are damaged. [The police] did that to innocent people, for no reason. And now they’re going to twist it all up.”
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.