Police are found guilty in post-Katrina shootings
Were charged with civil rights violations
NEW ORLEANS - A federal jury convicted five current and former police officers yesterday of civil rights violations in connection with six shootings, two of them fatal, on a New Orleans bridge after Hurricane Katrina.
It was a victory for the US Justice Department in its push to clean up the city’s troubled Police Department. A total of 20 current or former officers were charged last year. Most of the cases center on actions following the Aug. 29, 2005, storm, which plunged the flooded city into a state of lawlessness and desperation.
Sergeants Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, Officer Anthony Villavaso, and former officer Robert Faulcon were convicted of civil rights violations in the shootings that killed two people and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge less than a week after the storm. They face possible life prison sentences.
Retired Sergeant Arthur Kaufman and the other four were also convicted of engaging in a coverup that included a planted gun, fabricated witnesses, and falsified reports. The five were convicted of all 25 counts they faced.
Shaun Clarke, a defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor who moved from New Orleans to Houston after Hurricane Katrina, said the verdicts are “critically important’’ to the Justice Department’s reform efforts.
“It’s a huge verdict for the government,’’ he said. “Of all the cases concerning alleged misconduct by police officers after Katrina, this was the one that had the highest national profile.’’
US Attorney Jim Letten said the verdicts send a message to “public officials, and especially law enforcement officers, that they will be held accountable and that any abuse of power will have serious consequences.’’
Faulcon was found guilty of fatally shooting Ronald Madison, 40, a mentally disabled man, but the jury decided that the killing did not amount to murder.
Faulcon, Gisevius, Bowen, and Villavaso were convicted in the death of James Brissette, 17.
Jurors did not have to decide whether Brissette’s slaying was murder, because they did not hold any of the defendants individually responsible for causing his death.
Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the deadly encounter on the bridge, was not charged in the shootings.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who invited the Justice Department last year to conduct a thorough review of the New Orleans Police Department, said the verdicts “provide significant closure to a dark chapter in our city’s history.’’
In March, the Justice Department issued a report that said New Orleans police officers have often used deadly force without justification, repeatedly made unconstitutional arrests, and engaged in racial profiling.
Five former officers pleaded guilty to participating in a coverup of the bridge shootings and testified during the trial. Another former officer, retired Sergeant Gerard Dugue, faces trial in September.
Brissette’s mother, Sherrel Johnson, said she was relieved by the verdict after “a long, hard six years’’ and would now try to move on. But she lamented what her son has lost, saying, “For him, there will be no prom, no baby, no nothing.’’
Her sister Jackie Madison Brown said that after an event like Katrina, “all citizens, no matter what color or what class, deserve protection.’’
Attorney Roger Kitchens, who represented Villavaso, said he believed that negative news coverage of the case tainted jurors.
“At this point, I don’t think it’s possible for a New Orleans police officer to get a fair trial in the city of New Orleans, and I don’t think they got one today,’’ he said.
Prosecutors said police had no justification for shooting unarmed, defenseless people trying to cross the bridge in search of food and help mere days after Katrina struck. Defense attorneys argued, however, that police were shot at on the bridge before returning fire.
Faulcon, the only defendant to testify, said he was “paralyzed with fear’’ when he shot and killed Madison, as he chased him and his brother, Lance Madison. Faulcon did not dispute that he shot an unarmed man in the back, but he testified that he had believed that Ronald Madison was armed and posed a threat.
Prosecutors contended that Kaufman retrieved a gun from his home weeks after the shootings and turned it in as evidence, trying to pass it off as a gun belonging to Lance Madison. Police arrested Lance Madison on attempted murder charges, but a grand jury later cleared him.