NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Five New Orleans police officers pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to federal charges in the case of a man shot dead and then burned during the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The trial followed federal investigations into several cases of alleged police brutality in the days after the storm that killed more than 1,800 people, flooded New Orleans in 2005 and devastated much of the Gulf Coast.
Henry Glover was shot dead in the back by police in the Algiers section of New Orleans on September 2 while unarmed and trying to evacuate his family, according to government prosecutors.
Police also failed to help Glover when he was driven in a Chevy Malibu car to a police post for emergency treatment, instead beating up the car’s other occupants and allowing Glover to bleed to death, prosecutors said.
Policeman Greg McRae took the car to the levee and set it and Glover’s body on fire, destroying incriminating evidence about how the victim was killed. When bystanders found the body in the car near the Mississippi river later there was nothing left but a skull, a rib cage and some flesh, prosecutors said.
“Officers took an oath to protect and serve the citizens of New Orleans and uphold their constitutional rights. These men broke that promise,” government prosecutor Tracey Knight told the court.
“They believed after the storm, no one was watching. No one would ever care about the criminal acts that they committed,” Knight said.
Defense attorneys argued that former officer David Warren shot Glover because he believed he was an armed threat and McRae burned the car without being told to do so by a superior.
Warren is charged with the shooting and faces life in prison if convicted, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Warren was guarding a detective bureau office in a strip mall when the shooting occurred.
“Four years later, they’re reconstructing this case to make it what they want it to be,” said Warren’s attorney Julian Murray.
McRae is charged with burning Glover’s body in the 2001 Chevrolet Malibu after the shooting.
Former officer Robert Italiano and current officer Robert McCabe are charged with obstruction of justice for submitting a false and inaccurate incident report on the shooting. They face up to 30 years in prison if found guilty.
The storm and its aftermath -- in which tens of thousands of people were stranded by flooding and lacked adequate food and water -- led to lawlessness. New Orleans police are accused of committing several crimes during the time.
Federal prosecutors have charged 20 officers in four separate cases stemming from Katrina, according to local media reports.
Editing by Greg McCune