The trial was a prominent test of the US justice department's effort to clean up the New Orleans police [GALLO/GETTY]

A US federal jury has found five New Orleans police officers guilty for their roles in the shooting deaths of two civilians that took place in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a subsequent cover-up.

The Louisiana court said on Friday that four officers faced up to 25 counts each for their role in the September 4, 2005, shootings.

A fifth officer was convicted of helping the others cover-up the incident. All the officers potentially face life in prison.

"Today's verdict sends a powerful, unmistakable message," Jim Letten, the US attorney, said outside the New Orleans courthouse.

The jury's decision means the civilians' deaths were the result of police wilfully violating their civil rights, but that police did not arrive at the scene with the intent to murder the victims.

The four officers were found guilty of depriving citizens of their rights, and using firearms in the deprivation of those rights, the Associated Press news agency reported.

'A critical verdict'

They were also convicted of various charges connected with the cover-up, including conspiracy to obstruct justice and violate civil rights, and false prosecution.

The fifth officer, a retired homicide detective, was convicted on 10 counts related to the cover-up, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, fabricating witnesses, falsifying victim statements, misleading federal investigators, and falsifying evidence.

The officers' defence attorneys argued the police were returning fire and reasonably believed their lives were in danger as they rushed to respond to another officer's distress call less than a week after Katrina struck.

The trial was a prominent test of the US justice department's effort to clean up a police department marred by a reputation for corruption and brutality.

A total of 20 current or former New Orleans police officers were charged last year in a series of federal probes.

Most of the cases centre on actions during the aftermath of the August 29, 2005, storm, which plunged the
flooded city into a state of lawlessness and desperation.

"This was a critical verdict. I cannot overstate the importance of this verdict. The power, the message it sends to the community, the healing power it has," Letten said.

Source: Agencies