NEW ORLEANS – Four New Orleans police officers could face the death penalty after being accused of gunning down two unarmed people in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the latest twist for a corruption-plagued department that already faces several federal investigations.
The four officers were charged along with two others in a 27-count indictment unsealed Tuesday.
The indictment charges Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, officer Anthony Villavaso and former officer Robert Faulcon with deprivation of rights under color of law and use of a weapon during the commission of a crime. They could face the death penalty if convicted, though U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said prosecutors haven’t decided whether to seek that punishment.
Five former New Orleans police officers already have pleaded guilty to helping cover up the shootings on the Danziger Bridge that left two men dead and four wounded just days after the August 2005 hurricane that devastated the city. In one instance, a mentally disabled man was allegedly shot in the back and stomped before he died.
Prosecutors say officers fabricated witness statements, falsified reports and planted a gun in an attempt to make it appear the shootings were justified. It was a shocking example of the violence and confusion that followed the deadly hurricane.
The case is one of several probes of alleged misconduct by New Orleans police officers that the Justice Department opened after the storm. Last month, five current or former officers were charged in the shooting death of 31-year-old Henry Glover, whose burned body turned up after Katrina.
With 80 percent of New Orleans underwater, officers from a department with a history of corruption were forced to battle rampant crime, and some became criminals themselves. Dozens of officers were fired or suspended for abandoning their posts.
In the bridge shooting case, seven officers were charged with murder or attempted murder in December 2006 but a state judge threw out all the charges in August 2008. Federal authorities then stepped in a month later to launch their own investigation.
So far, five former New Orleans police officers have pleaded guilty to lesser charges of helping cover up the shootings on the Danziger Bridge and await sentencing.
The latest indictments come shortly after the city’s new mayor replaced its former police chief and invited a Justice Department team to overhaul the police department.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department is working with city officials to restore residents’ trust in the police department.
“Put simply, we will not tolerate wrongdoing by those who are sworn to protect the public,” Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday in New Orleans.
Sgt. Arthur Kaufman and retired Sgt. Gerard Dugue, who helped investigate the shootings, were charged with participating in a cover-up to make it appear the shootings were justified. Charges against them include obstruction of justice.
It’s not the first time the Justice Department has intervened. In the 1990s, the Justice Department investigated several high-profile police corruption cases, including a police officer convicted of arranging a woman’s 1994 murder.
The new batch of federal probes are bearing fruit as the city welcomes a new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, and his new police superintendent, Ronal Serpas. At Landrieu’s request, the Justice Department launched the top-to-bottom review of the department.
Mary Howell, a civil rights attorney who represents relatives of one of the Danziger bridge shooting victims, said the police department has been plagued by a pattern of “episodic crises” that have eluded lasting reforms.
“There is either a refusal or inability by local authorities to take care of them,” she said. “I think it’s a question of leadership. This stuff requires institutional changes that require the political leadership of the community to make it last.”
Eric Hessler, a lawyer for Gisevius, said the indictment wasn’t a surprise.
“We have long anticipated that this day may come,” he said.
Claude Kelly, a lawyer for Dugue, called it “a travesty” and denied his client participated in a cover-up.
“This is just overreaching, Monday morning quarterbacking by the government,” Kelly said.
Faulcon, who resigned from the department shortly after the storm, was arrested at his home in Houston. Gisevius, Bowen and Villavaso surrendered at FBI headquarters in New Orleans.
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said prosecutors will ask for all four of them to be detained.
Some of the defense attorneys bristled at the arrest of Faulcon.
“They really didn’t have to do that,” said Frank DeSalvo, a lawyer for Bowen. “Nobody is going anywhere. We’ve never thought about doing anything other than face these charges.”
Kaufman and Dugue weren’t arrested. A date for the men’s initial court appearances wasn’t immediately set.
The indictment claims Faulcon shot 40-year-old Ronald Madison, who had severe mental disabilities, in the back as he ran away on the west side of the bridge. Bowen is charged with stomping and kicking Madison while he was lying on the ground, wounded but still alive.
His brother, Lance Madison, was arrested and charged with trying to kill police officers. He was jailed for three weeks and released without being indicted.
Bowen, Gisevius, Faulcon and Villavaso also are accused of shooting at an unarmed family on the east side of the bridge, killing 17-year-old James Brissette and wounding four others.
All six officers are charged with participating in the cover-up.
Dugue retired from the force earlier this year. Kaufman has been on paid sick leave.