Friday, December 10, 2010

Justice in New Orleans

There were so many atrocities visited on the city of New Orleans between Aug. 29 and Sept. 3, 2005, it’s impossible to fully separate the natural disaster from the man-made kind. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the worst weather-related devastation to hit the United States in maybe 100 years, we saw and heard about some of the worst of human behavior as the waters of the Gulf receded — the tide that followed the storm.

Much of that evil we’ll never know about. But we can be grateful for the jury of five men and seven women who saw wrong that they could fix, and who did it, after three days of deliberation, on Thursday.

That was when David Warren, a former officer of the New Orleans Police, was convicted of manslaughter for shooting an unarmed man outside a strip mall on Sept. 2, 2005, when the scope of the chaos was still unfolding … when officers of the law needed to represent the law.

Prosecutors said Warren shot 31-year-old Henry Glover in the back. Warren testified that he thought he saw a gun in Glover's hand before he fired one shot at him from a second-floor balcony.

From The Associated Press:
Warren, 47, said he was guarding a police substation at the mall and armed with his own assault rifle when Glover and a friend, Bernard Calloway, pulled up in what appeared to be a stolen truck. Warren claimed Glover and Calloway ran toward a gate that would have given them access to the building and ignored his commands to stop.

But Warren's partner that day, Officer Linda Howard, testified Glover and Calloway weren't armed and didn't pose a threat. Calloway said he saw Glover leaning against the truck and lighting a cigarette, with his back facing the strip mall, just before he was shot.

It wasn't the only time Warren discharged his weapon that day. Earlier in the morning, Warren had fired a warning shot at a man on a bicycle. Warren said he felt threatened by the man because he kept circling and looking up at him.
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Another officer, Gregory McRae, was convicted of burning Glover's body in a car.

From the AP:
After Warren shot Glover, a passing motorist, William Tanner, stopped and drove the wounded man, Calloway and Glover's brother, Edward King, to a school that members of the police department's SWAT team using in the storm's aftermath.

Tanner and Calloway testified they were ordered out of the car at gunpoint, handcuffed and beaten by officers who ignored their pleas to help Glover.

McRae, 49, admitted he drove Tanner's Chevrolet Malibu from the school to a nearby Mississippi River levee and set it on fire with Glover's body still in the back seat.
A third officer, Lt. Travis McCabe, was convicted of writing a false report on the shooting and lying to the FBI and a grand jury. Two others were acquitted of lesser charges.

Warren, who has been in custody since his indictment earlier this year, is looking at a possible maximum sentence of life in prison. Needless to say, he plans to appeal.

"Tonight's verdict is a critical phase in the recovery and healing of this city, of the people of this region," said U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.

The case reopened old wounds that persist in the relationship between the NOPD and the city’s residents. that exposed one of the ugliest chapters in the police department's troubled history. AP reported that no fewer than 20 current or former NOPD officers have been charged this year in Justice Department civil rights investigations.

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There’s no doubt that New Orleans cops were faced with an unprecedented situation in the days after Katrina. With looters and petty crimes rampant in the submerged streets, with bloated bodies floating everywhere, with the Superdome a kind of ground zero of despond, Dante’s ninth circle of hell probably looked like Disney World by comparison.

But the jury’s verdict reinforced what we’re told every day: we hold police to a higher standard, and we do that for a reason. When the centurions help sack the city they’re sworn to protect … well, right-thinking people have a problem with that.

The conviction proved the jury rebuffed the boilerplate excuse that the officers’ actions were a result of stress from Katrina-related law enforcement duties. That rejection was probably made a little easier by the fact that several NOPD officers had already admitted lying to the FBI or a grand jury.

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All in all, a huge day in the Big Easy. Like the Saints’ Super Bowl win and the rejoicing at Fats Domino having survived the flood, the verdict was another big step in New Orleans bouncing back.

A jury with guts and principle stripped away the badge and its awesome permissions, looking at the evidence in at the case, and at the defendants, for what they are or surely seemed to be.

That’s a reason for all of us to celebrate. At the end of the day, it takes the crucible of a jury trial, and a panel of ordinary everyday people, to decide what civilization is. We the people, in the unifying context of a jury, get to set aside the majesty of the law, its trappings, all the ritual and nomenclature and bullshit. We still get to decide what civilization is. That’s what happened on Thursday down in New Orleans.

Image credits: Ione Bolden and Rebecca Glover: Matthew Hinton, Times-Picayune. Greg McRae: AP/Patrick Semansky. Bolden and well-wishers: AP/Gerald Herbert.

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