Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Last Hurricane Katrina Case

Having written about Hurricane Katrina in the past, I felt a need to take a break from working on Jambalaya Justice to write about the verdicts of the last prosecution for crimes committed by police officers during Katrina. The trial wrapped up a few weeks ago in Eastern District Court in New Orleans, and I have been putting off writing about it because things did not end up favorably for a friend who was charged in the case, and it has been difficult for me to assimilate.

Initially, the D.A. refused to prosecute the various cases in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, because the grand jury in New Orleans refused to indict the officers involved in the most serious case, the Danziger Bridge shootings. Thus, the U.S. Attorney, Jim Letten, charged the officers in federal court, the Eastern District Court in New Orleans, with what are civil rights violations, but the convictions have the same type of sentencing ranges as criminal charges. The feds prosecuted NOPD officers not only for the famous Danziger shooting, where all of the defendants eventually pled guilty, but also for several other crimes during Katrina.

The last case, which I believe is the only one that actually went to trial, involved the shooting death of Henry Glover. Glover was out with his brother after Katrina, apparently looking for supplies. He was shot by NOPD Officer Warren, who was keeping guard from a makeshift temporary police station at a school. (Warren was found guilty of manslaughter as opposed to murder.)

A few minutes later, Glover's brother and another man drove a bleeding Glover to another makeshift station and were met by Officer McRae, who felt for a pulse, realized Glover was dead, and ordered his brother and the good Samaritan to leave.

The good Samaritan testified that he and Glover's brother were beaten by Officer McRae and Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann, but apparently the jurors weren't convinced because they found both men not guilty on those particular charges. Glover's brother, for reasons unknown, did not testify at all at trial.

McRae directed another officer, who didn't know Glover's body was inside the car, to drive it to the levee behind the station. McRae then set the car on fire with a flare gun. He testified Scheuermann did not know what he was going to do, but Scheuermann, who was the ranking officer, watched and did nothing to stop him after he did it. McRae was found guilty of 2 civil rights violations, one of those for burning Glover's body. Scheuermann was found not guilty on all counts.

Weeks later, Lt. Travis McCabe participated in the writing of a police report that cleared the other officers of wrongdoing. Another officer in charge of writing the report testified against McCabe, stating that the parts of the report clearing the officers was not her work. She also admitted she lied to a grand jury about the events and could not produce a copy of what she claims was her original report. She took early retirement immediately after testifying, and was not charged with anything in exchange for her testimony. McCabe was found guilty of lying to a grand jury and falsifying a police report.

Finally, Lt. Italiano was charged with obstruction for the subsequent cover up, the government's theory being that he did not adequately investigate the link between the shooting of an unknown man and the burning of Glover's body. He was also found not guilty.

It's a set of complicated circumstances, and the defense for Warren and McRae relied heavily upon the Katrina factor as justification for their actions. Warren testified he was in fear of his life and afterward did not know that he had hit anyone, and the NOPD had been advised to, "shoot the looters." Indeed, our own governor went on television and advised somewhat the same thing. McRae testified as to the death and devastation he had already seen, including seeing dead babies and people floating along the streets, and said he couldn't stand the thought of a body rotting that close to where they were located. It was noted by the prosecution that he did not burn any of the other dead bodies he saw.

McCabe testified that the officer in charge of writing the report asked him to help, and he assisted her, and that was the end of it. He still maintains what he told to the grand jury. The officer who testified against him contradicted herself more than once during trial, but a jury finds what a jury finds. McCabe has asked for a new trial, which will be heard February 24, but new trials are rare and the motion is more procedural than anything.

I know both Dwayne Scheuermann and Travis McCabe. I worked with both of them when I was a prosecutor at the D.A.'s Office, and Travis married a fellow prosecutor I was pretty good friends with, who also, coincidentally, went to school with my husband. Travis also arrested my brother in law once during my tenure as a prosecutor for possession of marijuana, and my experience with Travis and his wife, Juliet, is that they are both rule followers to an extreme.

Granted, people never fail to surprise me, and who knows what one might be capable of given an extreme situation, but of all the police officers I know, and I know many, I am the most surprised that Travis would do something like this. I still have my doubts, but the jury has spoken, and that's what our justice system is about.

Which brings me to the Glover family. I am sorry for their loss, and I know how I would feel if something like that happened to someone in my family. The difference is that something like that wouldn't happen to my family, at least not during a hurricane, because I insisted my entire family evacuate. My husband had planned to stay behind, and I specifically told him that if it got as bad as what the forecasters predicted, it could be weeks before supplies were available, and if he stayed behind and had to loot for supplies at the end of a few days, and the police ended up shooting or arresting him, he had only himself to blame. I made my mother evacuate with me as well. If we could not have afforded a hotel, or if we couldn't have found a hotel, as that was a huge problem, I had decided we would either stay at a shelter or, if worse came to worse, we would just drive to the Alabama or Texas Welcome Center and hang out, with my kids, my mom, and my husband, until we figured something out.

My theory, right or wrong, has always been that people who evacuate don't end up getting shot by New Orleans police. Period. Argue morality or ethics or law all you want, or the fact that police shootings shouldn't be a factor in your decision to evacuate or not, but at the end of the day, the evacuees won't have an NOPD bullet in them.

People have their own reasons for staying put, I guess, the least of all being that most people thought we were going to dodge this one, so I really can't fault the Glovers for doing what a hundred thousand other people did. The thing that truly bothers me about the Glovers, however, is that they are bitter against the entire criminal justice system, insisting that all five of the officers should have been convicted and should do life in prison, missing the one point that I can accept. In America, the jury gets to decide who did it and who didn't do it. Joe Public is in no position to say someone is guilty of a crime after a jury has made a decision to acquit. Can juries be wrong? Of course they can. The theory is it is better for a hundred guilty men to go free than one innocent man be punished, but if nothing else the use of DNA has shown that innocent people go to jail all the time. (Louisiana, New Orleans in particular, has had to release people from death row after DNA evidence proved they were innocent of the murder and/or rapes they were convicted of, Louisiana having the death penalty for certain types of rapes.)

But still, while I grieve for Travis and Juliet that Travis got convicted of something I refuse to believe he did, and he not only will lose his job but end up with a possible 25 years in federal prison, in the end, once the jury convicts, a person is guilty. People can't rely on the criminal justice system only when it turns out the way they wanted it to.

It's an imperfect system, but it's the best one available, and people who truly don't like it can always move along to one of those countries that doesn't have a jury system. I say good luck with that one.

While the rest of the country is probably thinking that New Orleans should be getting over Katrina by now, more than five years after the storm, there are still many more steps to be taken to complete the recovery process.

Perhaps finishing off the last of the "police Katrina" cases is one more step in that direction. It's difficult to move forward while still looking back, and if the juries on the various cases didn't return the verdicts I wanted them to, at least I can say the verdicts brought this city a sense of closure.

9 comments:

Stephen L. Brayton said...

Tough times for everyone. A lot went on during that time, good and bad and many people were affected, either directly or indirectly. I extend sympathies that you are so close to some who were involved in the bad. (Not issuing judging, mind you, just saying involved in things that turned out bad.)

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Tough to read. I do know that sometimes people do things that we never in a million years would think they'd do. That time right after the worst of the storm was ghastly--even to watch on TV. And I bet this was tought to write too.

Marilyn

Kit Sloane said...

Tragedies make for tough decision making. The only part I'd quibble about in your informative and interesting blog is the "My theory, right or wrong, has always been that people who evacuate don't end up getting shot by New Orleans police. Period." which is correct, of course, but a LOT of people didn't have cars, no public transportation available, or the means (meaning $$$) to evacuate. They were stuck, period. I'm sure a lot of people would have liked to leave the continuing disaster, but couldn't. It's a tragedy all around.

Kit

Holli said...

Kit,I agree with you to some extent insofar as the unfolding drama after the levees broke, but after a hurricane hits land is too late to be thinking of evacuation and looking for public transportation to do so. There was public transportation to free public shelters available BEFORE the hurricane, when the evacuation was called, which many people took advantage of it, and I don't think anyone was turned away (although pets were.) The problem stemmed from those who didn't evacuate at that time, whatever their reasons. I believe the mayor's cavalier calling of the mandatory evacuation also came too late, which may have contributed to the decision making process of some people.

The biggest tragedy is that we will no doubt have a repeat if the same thing happens here again, because there are so many people in this city who simply won't leave, given the means and opportunity, because that is what a lot of folks here just do, even after Katrina.

Sunny Frazier said...

We can read about incidents like this one and hear it on the news, but until someone like Holli puts a personal spin on it, it doesn't hit home. A tragedy on all counts.

Eyre Price said...

Are you serious with this?

First, "The Katrina Defense" has had many names and has been used over and over again as the only legal means to defend the morally indefensible. It was used in Nuremburg and Tokyo. And Sarajevo. And most recently Iraq. It's always used on behalf of "good" men--(you call them "rule followers")--who have committed unspeakable and inhuman acts that any civilized society (or individual) must condemn no matter what the circumstances.

Second, that as a former prosecutor you can now bemoan "an imperfect system" is at best laughable. New Orleans Parish has long perfected the "imperfections" of what they loosely call their justice system and no one who's worked within that system can pretend to be so naive that they don't realize that the walls of Angola contain far too many innocent men. Or was it simply this verdict that troubled you?

That you consider the men convicted of these crimes to be your friends may explain your need to defend those who shot an unarmed man, savagely beat those who were trying to help him, and then put the body in a car and set it on fire. (Law enforcement witnesses testified that the perpetrators laughed as the flames consumed the corpse.) But it is inexcusable (particularly for a former prosecutor) to suggest that the victim was in any way responsible for his own murder or "had it coming to him"--(as you suggest your own husband would have had)--simply because he didn't leave New Orleans. Would you suggest the same of the almost 1,500 other men women and children who lost their lives?

I'm thrilled that you and your family were able to evacuate the city during Katrina and are safe. (My family hosted its share of refugees.) But in your condemnation of those who didn't leave, you seem to overlook the fact that many people simply weren't able to leave.

In fact, your obviously false sympathy for the victim's family followed immediately by the statement "something like that wouldn't happen to my family" is what is most disturbing about your comments. It may be easy to sit in your home in The Garden District? Or Uptown? --(It's sure not the Ninth Ward or any place else that would teach you the bitter lesson that sometimes there's just not enough money)--and condemn the many who defied the orders to leave. The simple fact, however, is that New Orleans is home to tens of thousands of people without the financial resources necessary to undertake any kind of evacuation. You make light of what happened to each and every one of Katrina's victims by suggesting that anyone--including an unarmed man who was shot by the very people who were supposed to be protecting him--had only themselves to blame.

No, the man who shot him dead and stuffed his body into a car like so much garbage was to blame. And thank goodness a jury finally gave that poor man the respect he was denied in death.

No one who loves the City (or in my case who loves someone who loves the City) thinks that five years--or any amount of time--will lessen Katrina's impact on their lives. There are tears shed at every Saints game. And Mardi Gras. And JazzFest. And there always will be. But for New Orleans to move forward--to truly move forward--it must not turn away from Katrina's victims and pretend there was ever a good reason for any of their deaths.

Rather, if the Crescent City is ever going to rebuild itself, it must first acknowledge and then address the situations, attitudes and injustices that were at the heart (and perhaps the true cause) of the Katrina tragedy.

Eyre Price said...

First, "The Katrina Defense" has had many names and been used over and over again as the only legal means to defend the morally indefensible. It was used in Nuremburg and Tokyo. And Sarajevo. And most recently Iraq. It's always used on behalf of "good" men--(you call them "rule followers")--who have committed unspeakable and inhuman acts.

Second, that as a former prosecutor you can now bemoan "an imperfect system" is at best laughable. New Orleans Parish has long perfected the "imperfections" of what they loosely call their justice system and no one who's worked within that system can pretend to be so naive that they don't realize there are far too many innocent men in Angola. Or was it simply this verdict that troubled you?

That you consider the men convicted of these crimes to be your friends may explain your need to defend them, but it is inexcusable (particularly for a former prosecutor) to suggest that the victim was in any way responsible for his own murder or "had it coming to him" simply because he didn't leave New Orleans.

I'm thrilled that you and your family were able to evacuate the city during Katrina and are safe. (My family hosted its share of refugees.) But your obviously false sympathy for the victim's family followed immediately by the statement "something like that wouldn't happen to my family" is what is most disturbing about your comments. It may be easy to sit in your home in The Garden District? Or Uptown? --(It's sure not the Ninth Ward or any place else that would teach you the bitter lesson that sometimes there's just not enough money)--and condemn the many who defied evacuation. New Orleans, however, is home to tens of thousands of people without the financial resources necessary to undertake any kind of evacuation. You make light of what happened to each and every one of Katrina's victims by suggesting that anyone--including an unarmed man who was shot by the very people who were supposed to be protecting him--had only themselves to blame.

No, the man who shot him dead and stuffed his body into a car like so much garbage was to blame. And thank goodness a jury finally gave that poor man the respect he was denied in death.

Holli said...

Eyre Price, yes, I am serious.

The Katrina defense is not mine, so please save your outrage for the defense attorneys who utilized it.

I have been a public defender for the past 11 years, which means I spend my time attempting to rectify the f-up criminal justice system down here instead of just complaining about it.

And no, I don't live uptown or in the Garden District, but on the westbank (armpit of New Orleans, in case you don't know.) My kids go to public school, I shop at WalMart and Payless, and I buy generic toilet paper. Although it was a financial struggle to evacuate, I would have taken a public bus to the free shelter knowing the climate of this city.

Knowing the climate is not the same as me agreeing that it's right. No one deserves to be shot by police unless they are a threat. But the shooter and the burner were convicted, so justice was ultimately served whether the Glovers (and you) see that or not. The drunk driver that crippled me two years ago got probation, so I can attest first hand that justice sometimes is a bitch.

And for the record, the only friend of mine I defend and who I said was generally a rule follower was Travis McCabe, the one convicted of writing a false police report weeks after the shooting. You lumped all five of the officers into that category and attributed it to me as if to insinuate I'm some kind of a Nazi.

You charge me with being one of the reasons my city can't move forward, which is quite a leap based upon a single blog you misquote. Ultimately, I don't mind being judged, but please do it by the words I wrote and not the ones you put in my mouth.

Sue McGinty said...

This is great Holli. Thanks for your special insight.