(CNN) — Blasting what he called "grotesque prosecutorial misconduct," a federal judge Tuesday ordered a new trial for five former New Orleans police officers convicted of shooting unarmed civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
At least three Justice Department officials went online to post "egregious and inflammatory" comments about the case against officers in the Danziger Bridge shootings, which left two people dead and four seriously wounded, U.S. District Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt concluded.
In a 129-page ruling, Engelhardt wrote that those comments, posted under pseudonyms, fueled a "21st century carnival atmosphere" that tainted the ex-cops' 2011 trial.
"This case started as one featuring allegations of brazen abuse of authority, violation of the law and corruption of the criminal justice system; unfortunately, though the focus has switched from the accused to the accusers, it has continued to be about those very issues," he wrote. "After much reflection, the court cannot journey as far as it has in this case only to ironically accept grotesque prosecutorial misconduct in the end."
The five officers were convicted of a combined 25 counts of civil rights violations and received prison terms ranging from six to 65 years for the September 4, 2005, shootings at the Danziger Bridge. They were accused of firing on an unarmed family and others who were attempting to flee the chaotic scene, which unfolded six days after Katrina flooded most of the city.
In a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, the Justice Department said, "We are disappointed with the court's ruling. We are reviewing the decision and considering our options."
Lawyers for the convicted officers had accused prosecutors of mounting "a secret public relations campaign" aimed at discrediting the defendants before trial, and the Justice Department assigned a prosecutor from Atlanta to investigate the allegations after both had been identified as having posted anonymous comments to the website of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Justice Department rules forbid prosecutors from making public comments that might influence the outcome of a case.
"The government's actions, and initial lack of candor and credibility thereafter, is like scar tissue that will long evidence infidelity to the principles of ethics, professionalism and basic fairness and common sense necessary to every criminal prosecutor, wherever it should occur in this country," Engelhardt wrote. But he added, "Given the time, effort and energy invested by the court in this matter from the beginning, this is indeed a bitter pill to swallow."
Engelhardt had imposed the stiffest sentence on former officer Robert Faulcon, who was handed a 65-year term for his alleged involvement in shooting two of the victims. Former sergeants Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius got 40 years for their roles in the incident, while ex-officer Robert Villavaso was sentenced to 38 years.
The lightest term went to former detective sergeant Arthur Kaufman, who was sentenced to six years for attempting to cover up what the officers had done.