NEW ORLEANS, LA - John McCusker, a staff photographer for the Times-Picayune, was placed on six months inactive probation and fined almost $900 as the result of a 2006 incident in which he pinned one police officer between the rear bumper of his car and a police cruiser and then drove away, starting a chase that ended with the photographer trying to goad police into shooting him to death.
A plea deal, which the Times-Picayune says was reached Thursday, gave McCusker, 44, probation instead of jail time and leaves open the possibility of the charges being eventually dismissed. He also agreed to take a weekly drug test for six consecutive weeks, the paper said, in an agreement with Judge Camille Buras that's commonly referred to in court as an "Alford plea," a deal that means McCusker doesn't admit any guilt but instead agrees with the court that it is in his best interest to stop fighting the charges.
When the incident happened in early August 2006, police said McCusker was depressed over learning that he didn't have enough insurance money to rebuild his home, destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Police commander James Arey, of the New Orleans police department's SWAT and police negotiating team, said at the time that McCusker was "really fine professional who was so depressed that he set out today to commit suicide by cop. It was to the great credit of the police officers on this scene that they would not do what he wanted and kill him but instead apprehended him alive by Tasering him.”
McCusker had returned to work one month before the encounter with police after taking a one-month leave of absence during which he spent the time away from the newspaper “sleeping off exhaustion and attending therapy sessions three times a week,” according to an article in the American Journalism Review by Mark Lisheron. McCusker’s family stayed in Alabama for four months while the photojournalist covered the aftermath of Katrina’s destruction of his hometown.
On August 8, 2006, New Orleans police tried to pull over McCusker when they saw him driving erratically near Napoleon Avenue and Baronne Street. Police said that after he hit several cars, he pulled over but refused to get out of his vehicle, telling police, "Just kill me, get it over with, kill me." The photographer put his car in reverse and pinned one officer between the rear of his car and a police car before driving away, starting the chase.
When news of McCusker's arrest spread through the journalism community, friends and co-workers responded with compassion and financial support. A relief fund that was already in place to help Times-Picayune staffers who lost their homes to Katrina also collected funds to help McCusker, and by the week after his arrest the fund had already received $10,000 in donations on his behalf.
In this week's plea deal, the charge of aggravated flight from a police officer, a felony, was reduced to resisting an officer, which is a misdemeanor, and a second charge of battery on a police officer was reduced to simple battery, also a misdemeanor. The Times-Picayune said McCusker apologized to the police officer and part of the restitution he's agreed to pay will go to the officer. In six months McCusker, who returned to work at the newspaper in January, can ask the court to dismiss the charges entirely.