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New Orleans paper must reveal online commenters’ identities - judge

Published time: January 23, 2014 03:05
Reuters / Sherwin Crasto SC

Reuters / Sherwin Crasto SC

A federal judge has ruled that a New Orleans newspaper must turn over information it has about anonymous commenters as part of an investigation into prosecutorial misconduct in the Danziger Bridge shootings that took place following Hurricane Katrina.

US Magistrate Judge Joseph Wilkinson decided Tuesday in favor of a lawyer for Stacey Jackson, the former New Orleans Affordable Homeownership executive director who has been accused of misusing federal funds before and after Hurricane Katrina for personal benefit. Theft and bribery are among the charges she is facing.

Jackson’s lawyer asked the judge to compel NOLA.com, the website of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, to provide the names, addresses, and phone numbers of two commenters who posted disparaging messages on the site about the five New Orleans police officers who were convicted of shooting civilians on a local bridge in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina.

The case has outraged much of the local and national public, although last year a judge ordered a new trial for the police officers because employees in US Attorney Jim Letten’s office acknowledged posting comments on NOLA.com about the case. Letten later resigned.

Edward Castaing, Jackson’s lawyer, said he wants to know if there are any other law enforcement employees who posted on NOLA.com anonymously, about his client in particular. Castaing asked that the subpoena, which he plans to deliver to NOLA this week, include any information related to the user names “aircheck” and “jammer1954,” speculating that the users pressured suspects to cooperate with prosecutors.

Mark my words. The canaries are going to start singing, and Car 54 is going up in smoke. Stacey Jackson is going to rat out every one, every body, and every thing to make the best deal for herself – after all she did this as chief of NOAH so her behavior isn’t going to change,” wrote commenter jammer1954, in what Judge Wilkinson described as one of the “most egregious” examples that helped him make his decision.

NOLA Media Group issued a statement Wednesday saying that the company usually tries to keep personal information private to “the extent possible” and that it “tales user privacy very seriously. Once we receive the subpoena, we will consider how to best respond.”

In September, US District Judge Kurt Engelhardt accused the prosecutor’s office of creating a “carnival atmosphere” that made it more difficult for the accused police officers to receive a fair trial. Engelhardt went on to describe the instance as an example of “grotesque” prosecutorial misconduct.

Now, four months later, Wilkinson has said it is necessary for authorities to find out if the scandal goes deeper than previously thought, saying that if the names are traced back to police or the Department of Justice, it “might lead to the conclusion that there was a pattern, policy or practice of pre-indictment prosecutorial misconduct in the accusatory process material to Jackson’s defenses alleging violations of her due process rights.”

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