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At officers' trials, defense stresses chaos after Katrina

NEW ORLEANS - Call it the Katrina defense: the idea that police officers' deadly acts in the wake of the hurricane must be judged through the prism of the chaos and desperation at the time.

NEW ORLEANS - Call it the Katrina defense: the idea that police officers' deadly acts in the wake of the hurricane must be judged through the prism of the chaos and desperation at the time.

Whether it worked in the trial of five current or former New Orleans police officers in the shooting death of a man outside a strip mall is open for debate.

One was convicted Thursday of manslaughter, another of burning the body, a third of lying about the incident. But two others were acquitted, and no one was found guilty of murdering Henry Glover, 31.

The next test of Katrina's effect on police accused of crimes could come in June, when a trial is scheduled for officers charged with gunning down two people and wounding four others on the Danziger Bridge less than a week after the August 2005 storm.

Claude Kelly, a lawyer for one of six current or former officers awaiting trial in the bridge shootings, said defense attorneys are not trying to use the hurricane as a blanket defense.

"But is Katrina a factor? Of course it is," he added. He accused the Justice Department of trying to "wish away" Katrina.

Prosecutors insist Hurricane Katrina offers no excuses, but attorneys for the officers charged in Glover's death had urged jurors to keep the storm in mind when judging their actions. Officers endured harsh, dangerous conditions to help thousands of people trapped in the flooded city for days, defense attorneys said.

Former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg said jurors may have considered post-storm conditions when they decided to convict officer David Warren of manslaughter rather than murder for shooting Glover on Sept. 2, 2005 - four days after Katrina hit. But it didn't seem to help Officer Gregory McRae, convicted of burning Glover's body in a car.

McRae testified that he set the fire because he was weary of seeing dead bodies strewed across the city after Katrina and didn't want to let another corpse rot. "The jury didn't seem to buy that one whit," Rosenberg said.

Warren said Glover and another man pulled up in what appeared to be a stolen truck and ran toward a gate that would have given them access to the mall, ignoring his commands to stop. He testified that he thought he saw a gun in Glover's hand and feared for his life when he shot Glover.

Prosecutors accused Warren of shooting an unarmed man in the back and tried to portray him as trigger-happy. Warren's partner testified that the two men were not armed and did not pose a threat.

The jury also convicted Lt. Travis McCabe of writing a false report on the shooting and of lying to the FBI and a grand jury. But Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann was cleared of charges that he helped McRae burn the body.

Scheuermann's attorney, Jeffrey Kearney, said the defense didn't try to invoke Katrina as an excuse. "However, the Katrina conditions are important to consider when determining why certain individuals made certain decisions in the case," he added.

Eric Hessler, a lawyer for one of the officers charged in the Danziger Bridge shootings, said he believes the jury based its verdict on the evidence "and not the hype produced by the Justice Department."

In the Danziger Bridge case, officers are charged with shooting unarmed residents crossing the span in search of food and supplies from a supermarket. James Brissette, 19, and Ronald Madison, 40, were killed. Five former officers have pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up that allegedly involved bogus reports and a plot to plant a gun. Two of those officers already have been sentenced to prison.

Steve London, an attorney for one of the officers charged in the bridge case, said he was encouraged by Thursday's verdict. "I believe the jury took into account the events that were occurring at that time, understanding the stresses that were placed upon certain of these officers," he said.

Warren, McRae, and McCabe are scheduled to be sentenced March 24. Warren faces 10 years to life in prison for manslaughter. McRae and McCabe face maximum sentences of 60 and 30 years, respectively.