Dennis Persica for Dec. 6, 2012

U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Engelhardt’s order last week in the Danziger Bridge case has elements of a Hollywood movie plot.

Remember “Double Indemnity,” the 1940s noir classic? In it, Edward G. Robinson suspects that Barbara Stanwyck’s husband didn’t die accidentally in a fall from a train but was murdered. He unpacks his theory – becoming more certain of it as the movie goes on – to Fred MacMurray, not knowing that MacMurray was the one who actually did the deed.

In his order last week, Engelhardt detailed the events leading up to his decision not to set a new trial for five police officers convicted of various crimes in the Danziger case, while holding out the possibility they may get a retrial anyway. The judge described in-chambers meetings with assistant U.S. attorneys discussing the revelations that one of them, Sal Perricone, had been anonymously commenting on an online news site about cases the U.S. Attorney’s Office handled.

In a meeting Oct. 10, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann, then second in command to U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, “indicated her belief that certain individuals, perhaps even employees of this court, posted opinions” on the nola.com news site, Engelhardt wrote.

Engelhardt was troubled by Mann’s suggestion that court employees could be commenting online, and he later pressed her on the matter. In a written response, Mann said, “Prior to the Perricone incident, I was not a follower of nola.com postings and had no real sense of what was happening there.”

She called the Perricone revelations “a valuable teaching moment for everyone about the perils of the internet,” and added, “We are now keenly aware of potential for individuals posting and will remain vigilant for abuses.”

It turned out, though, that Mann was one of the people committing the abuse. On Nov. 2, it was revealed that she, too, had been posting online comments about cases Letten’s office was prosecuting. Mann remains an assistant U.S. attorney, but has been demoted from the positions she held as first assistant U.S. attorney and chief of the criminal division.

Judging from his order, Engelhardt is livid about this little Hollywood twist. He has not held his tongue while scorching Letten’s office and the Department of Justice in Washington, which is supposed to have investigated the Perricone matter.

He accused Mann of an “act of perfidy,” and sarcastically noted that she was “purporting to represent the interests of the United States” in legal proceedings. He said Mann and Perricone may have committed “prosecutable criminal conduct.”

He warned Letten’s office against “a cavalier attitude toward the truth” and a win-at-all-costs approach to its cases. He accused government prosecutors of “skullduggery.”

Higher up in the chain of command, the Justice Department, Engelhardt said, can’t be trusted to provide “reliable investigatory answers” because its probe of the Perricone matter couldn’t even uncover the fact that Perricone wasn’t alone in shooting off his mouth online.

This story is spinning out of control like a Shakespearian tragedy, pulling more and more people into its spiral of doom.

Engelhardt suggested that reporters should be questioned by federal investigators about their sources, something that will chill the heart of any decent practicing journalist. And after urging the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor, he said that if the department decides not to, “The court is left to proceed as it sees fit” – a titillating hint that’s sure to keep every courthouse news junkie watching this drama until the very end.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.