NEW ORLEANS — A New Orleans police officer was convicted Wednesday of beating a 48-year-old handyman to death, while a fellow officer was found guilty of trying to help his partner cover up the deadly encounter nearly six years ago.
A federal jury convicted Officer Melvin Williams of violating Raymond Robair’s constitutional rights by kicking and beating him with a baton while he and Officer Matthew Dean Moore patrolled the Treme neighborhood on July 30, 2005. The jury of seven men and five women also convicted Williams and Moore of submitting a false report and found Moore guilty of lying to the FBI.
The case is one of several probes of the New Orleans police department by the Justice Department, which have resulted in charges against 20 current or former officers.
The officers’ attorneys had tried to shift the blame for Robair’s death to doctors who treated him for a heart attack for about 90 minutes before they discovered his spleen had ruptured. But the jury concluded Williams caused Robair’s death.
Williams faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. Moore could get up to 25 years in prison. After the verdict, U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon ordered both remanded into custody while they await a July 14 sentencing hearing. The department suspended both officers without pay after the verdict.
Outside the courthouse, some of Robair’s relatives wept as they embraced.
“I was waiting for this day,” said his mother, Marie Robair. “Now I can rest and my son can rest in peace.”
“It’s a humbling experience. It’s a learning experience,” said his daughter, Judonna Mitchell. “It’s taught me to be patient and to be true to my own faith.”
The jury heard four days of testimony and deliberated over three days before reaching the verdict, which “surprised, shocked and disappointed” Moore’s attorney, Eric Hessler.
“I don’t think the verdict fit the evidence presented by the government,” he said, questioning whether jurors were swayed by emotion.
Prosecutors said Williams beat Robair without justification, breaking four ribs and crushing his spleen before the officers drove him to a hospital, where he died of massive internal bleeding.
Williams, 48, denied kicking or hitting Robair. He claimed Robair slipped and fell on a curb as they approached, but jurors heard from residents who said they witnessed the beating. The officers’ attorneys, however, said the witnesses gave conflicting accounts.
The jury’s foreman — Patrick Goodman, 55, of River Ridge — told The Associated Press he didn’t believe Robair’s injuries could have been caused by slipping and falling on a curb before Moore started to handcuff him. Goodman said he discounted the officers’ version of events because their courtroom testimony didn’t match “written evidence,” including statements they gave after Robair’s death.
“I had to believe the pathologist who stated that the fall alone could not create enough force to cause that injury,” Goodman said, referring to an expert witness called by prosecutors.
Goodman also said he also believed residents who testified they saw Williams kick and beat Robair with a baton, even though some details didn’t match up.
“There was enough there to believe something happened,” he said. “I could not say that the discrepancies in ancillary facts were sufficient to discount their testimony.”
While defense attorneys criticized Robair’s medical care, prosecutors said the delay in treating Robair’s ruptured spleen resulted from lies the officers told medical staff. The officers allegedly told hospital staff that Robair was a “known drug user” whom they found under a bridge.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden testified as an expert witness for the defense. Frank DeSalvo, Williams’ lawyer, said Baden concluded that none of Robair’s injuries could have been caused by a police baton.
Of the officers charged in the civil rights probes, Williams and Moore were the only prosecuted for actions that occurred before Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. Their case was the second to be tried. In December, a jury convicted three former officers in the death of a man shot by one officer in Katrina’s aftermath before another burned his body.
Other trials are scheduled for later this year, including one for five current or former officers charged in deadly shootings on the Danziger Bridge after Katrina and an alleged coverup. Separately, two officers are charged with lying under oath about the fatal shooting of a man outside the city’s convention center after Katrina.
Hessler, who represents officers in both upcoming trials, questioned whether his clients can get a fair trial in New Orleans.
“You’ve got to question whether or not a juror can actually put the adverse publicity behind them,” he said, adding that he could seek a change of venue.
Goodman rejected Hessler’s suggestion that jurors were influenced by the emotional nature of the case.
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“I would not let emotion rule any serious decision I would have to make,” he said. “I went in on day one thinking innocence and they would have to prove it otherwise.”