Officers guilty in post-Hurricane Katrina shooting

Four New Orleans police officers were found guilty of “violating the civil rights” of two civilians and covering up the crime, according to an article from Reuters. A n additional officer was found guilty of helping the officers cover up the crime. You may recall this verdict stemmed from the Danziger Bridge incident in September 2005 that resulted in the killing of James Brissette, 17, and Ronald Madison, 40 and the wounding of four others.

Not surprisingly, the federal jury stopped short of calling what the officers did murder. From the Reuters article linked above:

The decision means the jury saw the deaths of Madison and Brissette as resulting from police willfully violating their civil rights, but that police did not arrive at the scene with murderous intent.

Officers Robert Faulcon, Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius and Anthony Villavaso were found guilty of depriving citizens of their rights in relation to the death of Brissette and the shooting of four others, as well as using firearms in the deprivation of those rights.

Faulcon was also found guilty of violating civil rights and use of a firearm in the killing of Madison.

The men were also convicted of various charges connected to a subsequent cover-up, including conspiracy to obstruct justice and violate civil rights, and false prosecution. The fifth officer, retired homicide detective Arthur “Archie” Kaufman, 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.

While there is some justice in this case, the verdict is still troubling because all of the witness indicated the victims were not armed. Some background from the Times-Picayune article:

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 jumped out and began shooting, eventually killing one member of the party — Brissette — and wounding four others: Jose Holmes, 19; his aunt, Susan Bartholomew, his uncle, Leonard Bartholomew III, and a teenage cousin, Lesha Bartholomew.

The victims, who had sought cover behind a concrete barrier on the side of the bridge, were riddled with gunshots. On a video shot by a news crew on the nearby Interstate 10, almost a minute of gunfire was audible, some of it the characteristic rapid fire of assault rifles.

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; she had to raise her left hand on the trial’s first day to be sworn in as a witness. Her daughter’s legs were torn apart by bullets. Holmes was struck several times, from his face to his abdomen, and had to wear a colostomy bag for years after the shooting. 

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 article noted the initial killings were greeted as a success for the department as they were seen as a way of restoring order to a city that supposedly succumbed to chaos after the devastating hurricane. The feds then took up the case and was followed by pleas that detailed “shocking” details about the crime. More from the Times Picayune article:

Their pleas contained shocking details of a coordinated cover-up that prosecutors assert was organized by Kaufman, along with Lt. Michael Lohman and Jeffrey Lehrmann, a former NOPD officer who became an immigration agent in Arizona. By late 2009, Lohman and Lehrmann had agreed to cooperate with federal investigators. They testified at trial about a whitewash that began the day of the shooting.

Those pleas led to others, starting with Hunter, the truck driver, and followed by two other men who rode out to the bridge that day: Ignatius Hills and Robert Barrios.

At trial, those three officers told jurors that after the shooting ended, they saw no evidence that the civilians had been armed.

Along with testimony from the surviving victims, the accounts of the cooperating officers provided the core of the government’s case.

This is why I think the verdict was bittersweet. The victims were clearly not armed and dangerous and posed no threat to the officers who stormed on the scene.

Across the country, the judicial system and defense attorneys have consistently done a great job in painting their men and women in blue as accidentally killing folks in the name of self defense. We saw this happen recently with the acquittal of the BART officer accused of killing Oscar Grant. Defense attorneys were able to successfully convince the jury that the officer thought he grabbed his TASER instead of his gun.

What do you think of the verdict? Was justice served in this case?