By Michael Kunzelman
NEW ORLEANS — Two New Orleans police officers were indicted Thursday on federal charges in the beating death of a 48-year-old man, part of a sprawling Justice Department probe that has led to charges against 18 of the city's officers.
Melvin Williams, one of the two officers charged, is accused of kicking Raymond Robair and beating him with a police baton, causing his fatal injuries. Williams and a fellow officer, Matthew Dean Moore, encountered Robair while patrolling a New Orleans street on July 30, 2005.
Both officers dropped him off at a hospital, where he later died of a ruptured spleen. The officers didn't tell anyone at the hospital that Williams struck Robair, the indictment said. Both men are still on the force.
A police report submitted by Williams and Moore described the encounter as a "medical incident" and included a false description of how Robair was injured, according to the indictment.
Williams is charged with deprivation of rights under color of law in Robair's death. Both officers are charged with obstructing a federal investigation. Moore is charged with lying to the FBI when he said Williams never struck Robair.
The case is one of at least eight investigations of the New Orleans Police by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. So far, Robair's death is the only incident being investigated that happened before Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
Williams' attorney, Frank DeSalvo, said his client has been given several citations over the years for being a "really good cop."
"I am surprised by this indictment," he said. "I just don't think they have a case. I don't think they did anything wrong."
Moore's lawyer, Eric Hessler, said the officers didn't know how Robair was injured.
"It was a very quick encounter," Hessler said. "It certainly wasn't a homicide, and it wasn't caused by any use of force by these officers."
Mary Howell, a lawyer for Robair's family, said they are grateful for the Justice Department's intervention.
"The family is hopeful that there will be justice and that those responsible for Raymond's death and the cover-up of the circumstances of his death will ultimately be held accountable for their actions," Howell said.
Sixteen other current or former officers are charged in an unrelated pair of post-Katrina police shootings.
Five former officers already have pleaded guilty to helping cover up a deadly shooting of unarmed civilians on a bridge less than a week after the storm's landfall. Six others are charged in that case.
Five current and former officers are charged in the death of 31-year-old Henry Glover, whose charred remains turned up in a car that had been torched and abandoned on a river levee after Katrina.
If convicted, Williams faces a maximum possible sentence of life in prison or the death penalty if prosecutors seek the latter. U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said the Justice Department has not decided whether to seek the death penalty.
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The charges against Moore carry a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. A date for their initial court appearances wasn't immediately set.