Stephanie Grace: Amid new trial, old realities remain vivid

There was some logic to a federal appeals court’s decision to grant former New Orleans police Officer David Warren a new trial for shooting Henry Glover, a ruling that effectively voided one of the Justice Department’s two signature Katrina-related police prosecutions.

Warren’s second trial, which gets underway in federal court in downtown New Orleans this week, will be far more limited in scope. The new prosecution will deal only with his piece of the horrific puzzle, his decision to fire at Glover, whom he believed was a looter, from the second story of an Algiers strip mall.

The jury won’t hear most of the rest of the gruesome story: the alleged beating of good Samaritans who sought medical aid for Glover from police, the horrific burning of his body in a car on a Mississippi River levee, the appalling lack of follow-through from police who knew the body was there but did nothing, the utter contempt his family faced when they tried to learn his fate. Gone too this time will be Warren’s former co-defendants, who had been accused of other facets of what amounted to a far-flung, collective atrocity.

Although Warren’s fateful shot set the tragic events in motion, the appeals court overturned Warren’s conviction and 25-year-sentence on the grounds that he suffered “specific and compelling prejudice” when his first trial covered the totality of the story.

Fine. One can argue, as Warren’s attorneys successfully did, that a jury tasked only with determining his guilt doesn’t need to the know the rest. But there’s no argument over whether the city does.

From the first news reports that exposed Glover’s fate three years after Katrina, throughout the FBI investigation and all the way through that first wrenching trial, something vitally important happened. Word got out. Shocking, systemic misconduct was exposed. A bell was rung, and no matter how Warren’s second trial ends, it can’t be unrung.

The same goes for the other big Katrina police case that’s still pending, the fatal Danziger Bridge shootings of unarmed civilians during the same period, and the subsequent cover-up. Although the trial court judge overturned the jury conviction of five former officers — who were convicted with the help of several colleagues who pleaded guilty and became key prosecution witnesses — the shocking story is now well known.

Judge Kurt Engelhardt’s reasoning isn’t nearly as convincing as that of the appeals court judges who granted Warren a new trial. Engelhardt pointed not to information divulged in court but to the anonymous online rantings of several members of the local U.S. Attorney’s Office; rather than specific and compelling prejudice, this was vague, highly hypothetical and far-removed. Still, if the Justice Department can’t convince an appeals court to overrule Engelhardt, the Danziger cops’ second trial likely would cover the same ground as the first, and the smart money would be on a similar outcome. The second Warren prosecution is much more of a crapshoot.

But no matter what happens in court, both cases, and several lesser-known smaller ones, already have served a key public purpose by sparking momentum for change and accountability. The Katrina cases provided an entry point for Justice Department Civil Rights Division lawyers who negotiated a far-reaching consent decree to reform the department. They boosted the credibility of longtime police critics, muted knee-jerk defenders and helped build support for a new independent police monitor.

Admittedly, the implementation has been somewhat messy. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu withdrew his once-enthusiastic support for the consent decree when the Justice Department went after conditions in Orleans Parish Prison too, leaving the city in a financial bind. Police monitor Susan Hutson has clashed publicly with Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, whose office houses hers.

Still, nobody’s arguing over whether reform is necessary. The fights have been more about how to achieve it and pay for it.

If nothing else, these cases helped build a consensus that nobody should ever again have to go through what the victims and their families did. And hopefully, they created a landscape in which nobody will again.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.