Trial Begins for NOPD Officers Involved in Post-Katrina Shooting

December 5, 2011

How does a man waving down a police car die from a shotgun blast to the back?

This is one of the questions we asked back in December 2009, when we launched Law & Disorder, our joint investigation with ProPublica and the Times-Picayune into six cases of questionable police shootings in the days following Hurricane Katrina.

Today the trial begins for the two New Orleans police officers involved in the shooting of Danny Brumfield, 45. His family says he was shot while trying to wave down police to help a woman outside of the convention center where thousands of stranded New Orleans residents were gathered.

The police told a different story. Officers Ronald Mitchell and Ray Jones say that Brumfield lunged at their car, making a “stabbing motion” with a shiny object. Mitchell said he shot Brumfield, fearing for his life.

Mitchell and Jones are not being tried for the shooting; instead they are charged with lying about it. Federal prosecutors say that during depositions for a civil lawsuit filed by Brumfield’s family, Mitchell lied about Brumfield attacking the car, and Jones lied when he said the two officers stopped the car to check Brumfield’s pulse after he was shot.

According to former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg, the perjury and obstruction of justice charges give prosecutors a lower hurdle to jump to prove wrongdoing. “In order to prove a violation of the Civil Rights Act, you must show that a defendant acted with bad purpose or an evil motive,” he told the Times-Picayune‘s Brendan McCarthy. “Here, you only need to show … that the defendant knew that their testimony might impede the investigation.”

The jury won’t hear about the NOPD investigation into Brumfield’s death, which as we reported, was deeply flawed. The 12-page police report said Brumfield was shot in the left shoulder; the investigating officer never bothered to examine the autopsy report that showed Brumfield was shot in the back. Photos officers took of the scene were later lost, and investigating officers didn’t interview any witnesses other than a brief conversation with Brumfield’s sister.

“In short, the investigation was so slipshod and so half-hearted that the fact that neither defendant was charged is of no moment to these proceedings,” prosecutor Michael Magner wrote in his motion to bar testimony about the report.  The judge granted the motion, as well as another motion that prohibits jurors from hearing about the $400,000 the city paid to settle the Brumfield family’s lawsuit.

The trial of Officers Mitchell and Jones is expected to last a week.

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