Katrina looms over deadly police shooting trial

Prosecutors say harrowing aftermath of hurricane doesn't excuse murder and immolation of unarmed man's corpse

Published December 6, 2010 7:27PM (EST)

Officers shot an unarmed man in the back and then burned his body in a car and doctored a report to conceal their crimes in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a federal prosecutor said Monday at a trial that will test the government's push to clean up the troubled New Orleans police department.

While prosecutors insisted Katrina offers no excuses, attorneys for the five current or former officers charged in Henry Glover's death have urged jurors to consider the 2005 storm when judging their actions.

The jury of five men and seven women is expected to begin deliberating Tuesday after hearing 12 days of testimony and up to eight hours of closing arguments Monday.

Police officers and civilians alike had to take desperate measures to survive after Katrina, but the storm can't excuse a murder, the barbaric act of burning a corpse or police covering up for other officers, Justice Department prosecutor Jared Fishman said.

"Hurricane Katrina did not mean that it was open season to shoot looters," Fishman said. "Hurricane Katrina didn't turn petty theft into a capital offense."

Glover was apparently driving a stolen truck and retreiving looted suitcases from outside a strip mall when a former officer, David Warren, shot him once from a second-floor balcony on Sept. 2, 2005.

"Henry Glover only wanted to leave New Orleans," Fishman said. "Henry Glover never got that chance."

Rick Simmons, one of Warren's attorneys, said his client feared for his life and had a split second to react when he shot at the 31-year-old.

"It's just a tragedy, but it's not my client's fault," Simmons said.

Simmons said post-storm conditions must be factored into deciding whether his client acted reasonably under the circumstances. He also urged jurors to remember two words when they judge the defendants: "They stayed," he said, alluding to the fact that many other officers abandoned their posts after the storm.

Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann and Officer Gregory McRae are charged with burning Glover's body and beating men who had driven the dying man to a makeshift police compound in search of help. Lt. Travis McCabe and former Lt. Robert Italiano are charged with writing and submitting a bogus report to make the shooting appear justified. Their attorneys were scheduled to deliver closing arguments after a lunch break.

A total of 20 current or former New Orleans police officers have been charged this year in a series of Justice Department civil rights investigations, including a deadly police shooting on a bridge that killed two residents and wounded four others less than a week after Katrina's Aug. 29, 2005, landfall. The probe of Glover's death was the first of those cases to be tried.

Besides its criminal investigations of alleged police misconduct, the Justice Department also is conducting a thorough review of the department's polices and procedures at the invitation of Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

All of the officers charged in the Glover case testified during the trial. McRae admitted he burned Glover's body by tossing a flare into the Chevrolet Malibu owned by one of the men who drove Glover to the police compound. Scheuerman said they merely were instructed to move the car away from the compound and claimed he didn't know McRae planned to burn it.

McCabe and Italiano denied they participated in a cover-up or lied to the FBI about what they knew about Glover's death.

One of the counts against Warren in an 11-count indictment says Glover's shooting death involved circumstances constituting murder, but U.S. District Judge Lance Africk said Monday he will tell jurors they can also consider the less serious charge of manslaughter.

One of Warren's attorneys, Julian Murray, urged the jury not to compromise, saying his client's life is ruined with any sort of conviction.

"They didn't prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt," he said. "They didn't even come close to it."

By Michael Kunzelman

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