NEW ORLEANS — A federal jury on Friday convicted five current or former police officers in the deadly shootings on a New Orleans bridge after Hurricane Katrina.
Former officer Robert Faulcon, Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, Officer Anthony Villavaso and retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman were convicted of charges stemming from the cover-up of the shootings. All but Kaufman were convicted of civil rights violations stemming from the shootings. Kaufman, who investigated the shootings, was charged only in the cover-up.
The trial was a high-profile test of the 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 center on actions during the aftermath of the Aug. 29, 2005, storm, which plunged the flooded city into a state of lawlessness and desperation.
The mother of 17-year-old James Brissette, one of the people killed on the bridge, said she was relieved by the verdict after “a long, hard six years.”
His mother, Sherrel Johnson, said she would now try to move on but lamented what her son would miss out on.
“For him there will be no prom, no baby, no nothing. My child will never have nothing,” she said.
The family of Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old disabled man fatally shot on the bridge, said in a statement the family had waited six years to “find out what really happened on that bridge.”
Madison’s sister Jackie Madison Brown read the statement, which also said that after an event like Katrina, “all citizens, no matter what color or what class, deserve protection.”
After the verdict was read, Justice Department prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein became emotional, hugging the families of Madison and Brissette and holding hands with two of Madison’s sisters.
Sentencing was tentatively scheduled for Dec. 14. Kaufman remains free on bond until he is sentenced. The other four officers already are jailed and face possible life prison sentences.
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said the verdict was critical to the city’s efforts to root out corruption. He said it sends a message that “public officials, and especially law enforcement officers, that they will be held accountable and that any abuse of power will have serious consequences.”
Defense attorney Roger Kitchens, who represented Villavaso, said he believed negative media 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 contended during the five-week federal trial that officers shot unarmed people without justification and without warning, killing two and wounding four others on Sept. 4, 2005, then embarked on a cover-up involving made-up witnesses, falsified reports and a planted gun.
Defense attorneys countered that the officers 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.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Theodore Carter said in closing arguments Tuesday that 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.
“It was unreasonable for these officers to fire even one shot, let alone dozens,” he had said.
Defense attorneys argued, however, that police were shot at on the bridge before they returned fire.
“None of these people intentionally decided to go out there and cause people harm,” said Timothy Meche, Villavaso’s lawyer. He said they did their best, operating under “terrible, horrible circumstances” after Katrina.
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 didn’t dispute that he shot an unarmed man in the back, but he testified that he had believed Ronald Madison was armed and posed a threat.
Prosecutors contended at trial 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. He also is accused of fabricating two nonexistent witnesses to the shootings.