[It took six years of mass struggle, keeping the spotlight of the world on New Orleans and Katrina, and the determined and unstoppable push of the victims families, to force this verdict out of a system that was blocking justice at every turn. — Frontlines ed.]
Friday, August 05, 2011
By Times-Picayune Staff — A jury this morning convicted all five New Orleans police officers accused in the Danziger Bridge shootings, which took place amid the chaos after Hurricane Katrina and claimed the lives of two civilians, and a cover-up of startling scope that lasted almost five years.
The verdicts were a huge victory for federal prosecutors, who won on virtually every point, save for their contention that the shootings amounted to murder. The jury rejected that notion, finding that the officers violated the victims’ civil rights, but that their actions did not constitute murder.
Sentencing for the five officers, all of them likely facing lengthy prison terms, has been set for Dec. 14 before U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt.
Four of the five officers — Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso — have been in custody since their arraignment.
The fifth, retired Sgt. Arthur “Archie” Kaufman, who was not involved in the shootings but headed the police investigation into them, remains free on bail.
Story by Laura Maggi and Brendan McCarthy, Staff writers
In remarks on the courthouse steps shortly after the verdicts were rendered, lead prosecutor Barbara “Bobbi” Bernstein said she was “in awe” of the relatives of the bridge shooting victims. Without their persistence, she said, the truth about the incident would never come to light.
Lance Madison, whose brother, Ronald, was shot and killed on the bridge, and who was jailed for allegedly shooting at police, thanked the jury and the federal authorities who brought the case, while noting he will never get his brother back.
“We’re thankful for closure after six long years of waiting for justice,” Madison said.
The landmark civil-rights case — one of four major federal cases involving use of force by New Orleans police to result in indictments so far — has been closely watched around the nation.
Because of its sheer magnitude, the Danziger case was the most high-stakes of the nine civil-rights probes into the NOPD the Justice Department has confirmed. Before today’s verdicts, five other former officers, all of whom testified during the six-week trial, had already pleaded guilty to various roles in the shootings and the subsequent cover-up.
The two other cases to go to trial so far — involving the deaths of Henry Glover and Raymond Robair at the hands of police — both resulted in convictions, although two officers accused of different roles in the Glover case were acquitted, and a third officer who was convicted recently had that verdict vacated.
While today’s verdicts close the book on most aspects of the Danziger case, one officer charged in the cover-up still faces charges: retired Sgt. Gerard Dugue, who is set to be tried Sept. 26.
The verdict comes at a pivotal moment for the long-troubled NOPD, which has been and remains under heavy scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department. Earlier this year, the department’s civil litigation section issued a blistering report about the NOPD that found systemic problems within the agency. City officials are in the midst of working out a consent decree with the department that will aim to make broad changes over several years.
The shootings took place on Sept. 4, 2005, a week after Hurricane Katrina. After hearing a distress call over the radio from another officer who said men were shooting at police on the nearby Interstate 10 bridge, a group of cops piled into a Budget rental truck and headed to the Danziger Bridge, the portion of Chef Menteur Highway that spans the Industrial Canal.
Officer Michael Hunter, who drove the truck, fired warning shots out the window as the truck neared the bridge. He stopped the truck behind the Bartholomew family, near the bridge’s eastern terminus. Police piled out and began shooting, eventually killing one member of the party — James Brissette, 17 — and wounding four others: Jose Holmes, 19; his aunt, Susan Bartholomew, his uncle, Leonard Bartholomew III, and a teenage cousin, Lesha Bartholomew.
Police then chased down Ronald and Lance Madison, who had been walking toward the Gentilly side of the bridge, a ways ahead of the Bartholomew family. Hearing the gunfire, the Madisons began to run. Ronald Madison, 40, was injured. Eventually, Faulcon killed him with a shotgun blast to the back as he ran away.
Lance Madison, who was unhurt, was arrested and accused of firing a weapon at police.
The Danziger shootings were originally portrayed as a home run for the department, a victory in restoring order to a city that had begun to come apart after the storm. But a state grand jury that investigated the shootings didn’t buy the testimony of the involved officers, seven of whom were charged with murder or attempted murder.
When the “Danziger Seven” turned themselves in at Central Lockup in January 2007, fellow officers joined them in a show of solidarity, patting them on the back and calling them heroes. The state case fell apart for procedural reasons in 2008, when the charges were dismissed by a judge.
At that point, federal authorities, who had been monitoring the case, took over, and the pressure intensified. Last year, five officers wound up taking plea deals, agreeing to testify at trial in hopes of receiving leniency when their own prison sentences are handed down.
Their pleas contained shocking details of a seemingly coordinated cover-up: a planted gun retrieved by Kaufman from his garage; officers successively revising their accounts of the shooting; phony witnesses; a secret meeting to coordinate stories.
Three of the cooperating officers were involved in the shooting, including two men who admitted they themselves fired at civilians.
At trial, the three officers told jurors that after the shooting ended, they saw no evidence that the civilians, many of them grievously wounded, had been armed.
Brissette was shot numerous times, from the heel of his foot to his head. He was killed by shotgun pellets that struck the back of his head, experts testified. Susan Bartholomew’s arm was nearly blown off by a large-caliber round, and it was later amputated. Her daughter’s legs were torn apart by bullets. Holmes was struck multiple times, from his face to his abdomen, and had to wear a colostomy bag for years after the incident.
Along with testimony from the surviving victims, the testimony of the cooperating officers provided the core of the government’s case.
Attorneys for the defendants countered this testimony with their own version of what happened, saying that officers at least believed they were under fire when they arrived at the bridge. In the official NOPD taped statements of the four defendants, each said they saw civilians with guns or actually were shot at.
But only Faulcon took the witness stand, telling jurors that he initially fired a 12-gauge shotgun on the east side of the bridge because he saw two men with guns. He shot and killed Ronald Madison on the other side of the bridge because he feared for his life, Faulcon said.
Paul Fleming, Faulcon’s attorney, asked jurors in closing arguments to consider the post-Katrina environment when evaluating his client’s decision to pull the trigger.
“It is a time of disorder, chaos and lawlessness. That doesn’t mean the rules change, but the perception changes,” he said.
Prosecutors countered that Katrina did change things for these police officers, but suggested that the chaos of the storm gave them the notion that their actions would never be scrutinized.
“They thought because of Katrina no one was watching,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Theodore Carter. “They thought they could do what they wanted to do and there wouldn’t be any consequences.”
The FBI investigation, led by FBI Special Agent William Bezak, focused initially on the NOPD’s internal probe of the incident. Bezak testified he sought to pick apart what he believed was a cover-up.
The initial success for the federal government came with two cops involved only in the investigation, Lt. Michael Lohman and Jeffrey Lehrmann, who had left the NOPD to become a federal immigration agent in Arizona. Lohman and Lehrmann described a coordinated cover-up that began the day of the shooting.
Lohman testified at trial that he assigned the case to Kaufman on the bridge knowing that what would follow would be a whitewash. Indeed, Kaufman and other cops neglected to pick up physical evidence at the bridge, including dozens of shell casings.
But Lohman characterized the cover-up that followed as inept, with the cover stories created by Kaufman and the shooters implausible. Prosecutors contended what followed was successive revisions of the report and officers’ statements, a secret meeting to coordinate stories and a planted gun retrieved from Kaufman’s garage.
Throughout the trial, Kaufman’s attorney tried to suggest to jurors that Kaufman wasn’t part of a cover-up, shifting the blame for any investigative failings to Lohman and Dugue, who was assigned the case in October 2005.
The cooperation of Lohman and Lehrmann led to the prosecution’s most important witness on the shooting itself: Hunter, who drove the Budget rental truck to the scene.
Hunter admitted firing “warning shots” out of the truck window as they arrived at the Danziger Bridge, prompting the civilians ahead of him to scatter. Some ran up the bridge. Others jumped behind a concrete barrier that lines the walkway. Hunter said he himself shot up the bridge at fleeing people. A video of the incident, taken from the nearby Interstate 10 high-rise bridge, shows Gisevius aiming an assault rifle in the same direction.
Other officers lined up, firing shotguns and assault rifles at the people behind the barrier, Hunter said. Later, when the gunfire stopped, Hunter said he realized the people were all unarmed.
Defense attorneys portrayed Hunter as a malcontent, a cop who chafed at following orders. But his testimony was powerful, particularly as he spoke of his anger after the storm destroyed the city and sent it spiraling into chaos.
“I wanted to send a message,” Hunter said of emptying his handgun of bullets. “Don’t mess with us.”
During closing arguments, defense attorney Frank DeSalvo attempted to use those sentiments against Hunter, suggesting he was the one responsible for the shooting of Holmes, an act prosecutors contended was committed by DeSalvo’s client, Bowen.
Hunter’s testimony was particularly damaging for Bowen. He said the sergeant began shooting an AK-47 from the passenger seat of the truck almost immediately upon arriving at the bridge. Later, Hunter testified, after the shooting had paused, Bowen interrupted the silence by leaning over the concrete barrier and firing several rounds. These ricocheted off the barrier and struck Brissette, who was lying defenseless on the ground, prosecutors alleged.
When officers went over to the Gentilly side of the bridge, Hunter testified Bowen stomped on a dying Ronald Madison, who had already been felled by Faulcon’s shotgun blast.
DeSalvo characterized Hunter’s testimony as fiction. Prosecutors believed it, “swallowed it like a trout because that’s what they wanted to hear,” DeSalvo said during his closing arguments.
But Bernstein, the lead prosecutor, countered that the physical evidence backed up Hunter, particularly the video taken from the I-10, which demonstrated the pause in the gunfire, broken by a fresh barrage from an assault rifle.
The video became a constant fixture during the trial, played by both sides. Bernstein emphasized the most powerful element of the video: the sound of near-constant gunfire for nearly a minute.
DeSalvo and other defense attorneys countered that the video actually helped their clients. DeSalvo told jurors that if they looked hard enough, they would see the shadow of his client sitting in the truck’s cab at a moment when Hunter testified Bowen was standing outside the vehicle.
Defense attorneys tried to call into question the heart of the government’s case: that the people on the bridge were unarmed families just crossing the bridge to get food. Instead, they suggested there was evidence that they had guns. And if they didn’t, the defense suggested that somebody else was out there firing on police.
The distress call that prompted the defendants to ride out to the bridge was made by officers on the I-10 bridge who were fired at by unknown men. Those officers testified that the perpetrators ran toward the Danziger Bridge.
Officer Jennifer Dupree, who radioed in for assistance, told jurors that she saw these men run up the bridge before the truck full of police officers arrived. Her description of the clothing worn by the men, however, didn’t match that of any of the civilians shot on the bridge.
A nurse who cared for Holmes at West Jefferson Medical Center testified that he told her at one point that his relatives were carrying guns on the bridge that day.
Prosecutors countered that this nurse misunderstood when he told her “they had guns.” Holmes was talking about police, they argued.
Holmes and several of his relatives testified that they weren’t armed. When they heard the sound of gunfire, his uncle ordered him to get over the concrete barrier, he said.
Holmes described taking cover by lying down on the ground. “I was kinda thinking if they saw us on the ground they wouldn’t shoot us,” he said.