Mar 30, 2012 9:12 AM by AP
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A federal judge refused Thursday to postpone an April 4 sentencing hearing for five current or former police officers convicted in deadly shootings on a New Orleans bridge after Hurricane Katrina.
The officers' lawyers had asked U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt to delay the hearing until after the Justice Department completes its investigation of Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone. Perricone resigned March 20 from U.S. Attorney Jim Letten's office after acknowledging he anonymously posted comments on a New Orleans newspaper's website about cases on which he has worked.
In court filings Wednesday, defense attorneys argued Perricone may have tainted the jury pool for the officers' trial by posting inflammatory comments about the case on nola.com, The Times-Picayune's companion website.
Engelhardt refused to delay the hearing, saying it wasn't apparent that "any relief to which defendants might be entitled regarding the matters at issue would relate to the imposition of sentences." But the judge said his ruling doesn't preclude the attorneys from seeking "any available relief regarding these troubling matters" after their clients are sentenced.
Perricone wasn't assigned to the case against the officers who were convicted last year of civil rights violations stemming from the shootings on the Danziger Bridge less than a week after the 2005 storm. But the defense lawyers argued he may have posted the comments "as platforms to inflame the public and to incite anger and disgust."
Police shot and killed two people on the bridge and wounded four others. Prosecutors said officers shot unarmed people and engaged in a cover-up to make the shootings appear justified.
Five other former officers pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up, cooperated with federal investigators and already are serving prison sentences.
A separate trial for another defendant, retired Sgt. Gerard Dugue, was cut short last month when Engelhardt declared a mistrial. He ruled that Justice Department prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein may have unfairly influenced the jury by mentioning the name of a man who was beaten to death by a New Orleans police officer in a case unrelated to Dugue's.
In a court filing Thursday, Dugue's attorney, Claude Kelly, asked the judge to bar Bernstein from continuing to serve as a prosecutor on the case. Kelly claimed Bernstein led an interview of Dugue that wasn't transcribed in September 2009 while an FBI agent was a "mere bystander." Dugue is charged with lying to the FBI about the case.
Bernstein "is certainly a material witness to the alleged statements and Mr. Dugue has a right to call her at the trial of this matter," Kelly wrote. "Therefore, Ms. Bernstein cannot continue to serve as prosecutor in this case."
Engelhardt didn't immediately rule on that request.