NEW ORLEANS – The chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina offers no excuse for the actions of five current or former police officers being tried in the fatal police shooting of a man whose burned body was found in a car in September 2005, a federal prosecutor told jurors Wednesday.
In her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tracey Knight said Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann and Officer Gregory McRae burned the body of Henry Glover to destroy evidence in the shooting death of the 31-year-old man days after the hurricane devastated New Orleans. Knight also accused former Lt. Robert Italiano and Lt. Travis McCabe of falsifying a report to make it appear as if a former officer, David Warren, was justified in shooting Glover.
Knight suggested that Katrina, which smashed some of the city's levees and stranded thousands of people in the flooded city for days, emboldened the officers.
"They thought no one was watching and no one would care about Henry Glover, but they were wrong," Knight told jurors.
McRae's lawyer, Frank DeSalvo, told jurors his client was under stress from Katrina's harsh conditions when he made a "very bad decision" to toss a flare in the car and burn Glover's body.
"He didn't fathom that he was violating anybody's civil rights," DeSalvo said.
The Justice Department's civil rights division has opened several probes of alleged misconduct by New Orleans police, resulting in charges this year against 20 current or former officers. Its investigation of Glover's death is the first of those cases to be tried.
Jurors heard that on Sept. 2, 2005, Warren was stationed at a strip mall when Glover and a friend drove up in a truck and Warren allegedly yelled, "Police, get out!" before he opened fire as Glover and the friend ran away.
Knight said Glover wasn't armed and wasn't threatening anyone.
"There is no disaster great enough to permit a police officer to shoot an unarmed man as he's running away," she said.
Linda Howard, an officer who was partnered with Warren that day, testified later Wednesday that both Glover and his friend weren't armed and posed no threat. She recalled asking Warren why he fired.
"He said, 'I didn't hit him.' I said, 'Yes, you did,'" she said.
Howard said she was upset and crying after the shooting.
"I just didn't understand why it happened," she said, testifying Warren had fired on a different man earlier in the day in the area but that man ran away unharmed.
Warren's lawyer, Julian Murray, said his client believed Glover and his friend were looters and that Glover was reaching into his waistband for a weapon when he fired a single shot from a personally owned assault rifle.
"The man is not a killer," Murray said.
Warren is the only officer charged in the shooting itself. The charge he faces — deprivation of rights under color of law — carries a maximum sentence of life in prison or the death penalty, but the Justice Department has declined to seek the latter.
After the shooting, a motorist stopped and took Glover, his brother, and a friend to a makeshift police headquarters, seeking help. Instead, officers allegedly ordered the three men out of the car and handcuffed and beat them while Glover's body remained in the back seat, according to prosecutors.
About an hour later, McRae and Scheuermann moved the vehicle containing Glover's body to a levee.
Jeffrey Kearney, Scheuermann's attorney, said his client was stunned when McRae set the car on fire and asked him why he did it. "I wasn't going to let a body rot," McRae told Scheuermann, according to Kearney.
Italiano and McCabe are accused of falsifying and submitting another officer's report on the shooting. Knight said the doctored report included a "fake narrative" that didn't mention what happened to Glover and the other three men after the car arrived at the school.
Lawyers for Italiano and McCabe denied they participated in a cover up or tried to mislead federal investigators. McCabe's lawyer, M. Allyn Stroud, said his client merely agreed to help another officer write the report.