Guilty verdicts in Danziger trial killings and cover up

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wwltv.com

Posted on August 5, 2011 at 2:10 PM

Updated Monday, Oct 21 at 12:55 PM

WWLTV.com

NEW ORLEANS – A federal jury made a sweeping statement, finding officers who were on the Danziger Bridge during the shooting of unarmed civilians and those involved in the following cover-up guilty of nearly all charges.

Defendants Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso were found guilty of the shooting of civilians and participation in the cover-up. Sergeant Arthur Kaufman was found guilty of the cover-up.

Jurors did not find that the killing of Ronald Madison rose to the level of murder. And jurors only found Kenneth Bowen guilty of shooting and killing James Brissette.

"These defendants will be facing very, very long sentences," said legal analyst Dane Ciolino. It was a far cry from three years ago when the officers involved in the shooting were given a hero's sendoff when they surrendered on state charges in the same case.

Sentencing was set for Dec. 14.

"This sends a powerful, powerful message... and that is that public officials, especially law enforcement officers will be held accountable for their acts," said U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. "The citizens of this country should not have to fear the people called upon to protect them."

Reporters in the courtroom said that some members of the officers' families were weeping quietly after the verdict.

The family of victim Ronald Madison greeted the verdict with solemn appreciation, thanking law enforcement and the media for keeping the story in the limelight. 

“We will never be completely healed, because we will never have Ronald Madison back,” said Madison’s brother Lance, who was with him on the bridge and who was initially arrested after the shooting.

"They took the twinkle out of my eye, the song out of my heart and they blew out my candle," said a visibly shaken Sherrell Johnson, the mother of James Brissette, the young man shot and killed in a hail of gunfire on the bridge.

The verdicts begin to close one of the darkest sagas that came to light in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The five current and former New Orleans police officers were accused of wrongfully shooting six unarmed civilians, two fatally, on the Danziger Bridge several days after the storm blew through New Orleans and then staging an elaborate cover-up to justify the shootings.

In a 25-count indictment, the men in question were accused of turning on those citizens they had sworn to protect, especially in their most vulnerable hour when the city’s levees ruptured, flooding and crippling a majority of New Orleans as it descended into chaos. They faced a slew of charges, ranging from civil rights violations to murder charges to using a firearm in the commission of a crime to misleading investigators.

Bowen, Gisevius, Faulcon, Villavaso were accused of shooting the unarmed men and women, while Kaufman was accused of masterminding the cover-up, including the planting of a gun on the bridge and writing a bogus police report that would include phony witnesses.

Prosecutors contended during the trial that Faulcon fatally shot Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, in the back with a shotgun as he fled from the bridge, and Bowen was accused of stomping on Madison as he lay dying at the foot of the bridge.

James Brissette, 17, was also killed on the bridge. Along with Brissette, also injured in the shootings that day were four others -- Susan, Leonard and Lesha Bartholomew and Jose Holmes -- all of whom had sought refuge behind a concrete barrier on the eastern side of the bridge.

Prosecutors accused Bowen of leaning over the concrete barrier and spraying those cowering behind it with bullets from an assault rifle.

Defense attorneys attempted to justify the use of deadly force that left Madison and Brissette dead by painting a scene of officers rushing to the bridge on Sept. 4, 2005 around 9 a.m. to assist police who were under fire.

In addition to victims’ testimony, the government’s case hinged on the words from other officers who also responded to the bridge. Michael Hunter, Robert Barrios, Ignatius Hills were there for the shooting and pleaded guilty before the trial to federal charges, becoming government witnesses against their fellow officers. Two other officers, Michael Lohman and Jeffery Lehrmann, who arrived after the shooting admitted that they helped in the cover-up and cooperated with the government against the accused officers.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later?

Dueling depictions of the events on Sept. 4 would play out throughout the trial during the several weeks of testimony.

While federal prosecutors portrayed the officers’ actions as “shoot first and ask questions later,” amounting to “carnage” on the bridge in the eyes of the government, defense attorneys countered the officers were faced with brutal conditions as they tried to keep law and order in the city. Under the stressful conditions with few supplies, little food, absent leadership, lack of support and a nearly broken police force in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, officers were forced to patrol the chaotic streets of New Orleans, defense attorneys would argue.

From the opening of the trial, the surviving victims of the Danziger shootings provided an emotional element to testimony. In addition to losing a close family friend in James Brissette on the bridge, Susan Bartholomew lost her right arm in the melee and would have to be was sworn in using her left arm on the opening day of testimony.

On the witness stand, Bartholomew said she and her family members ended up on the bridge that September day in hopes of getting food and supplies from a supermarket on the other side of the Industrial Canal. Instead, they came under intense fire on the bridge, she said.

“The police just kept shooting and I just kept feeling myself being hit,” Bartholomew testified, recalling the rain of gunfire they faced. “I prayed. I just called on the Lord. I didn’t know what else to do.”

But for the men accused, a dangerous threat awaited officers responding to the Danziger Bridge.

Tim Meche, the defense attorney for Villavaso, said during opening statements that the officers were responding in the Budget rental truck to a radio call where they believed there were shots fired and two officers were down on the bridge.

“Officers didn’t have a lot of time to assess the situation,” Meche said. “This was not a video game or a slow-motion movie. You take too much time to assess the situation and you get your head blown off.”

Faulcon, who rode in the back of the rental truck, testified to fear that he felt as he went to the bridge.

“We knew we were going into a bad situation. I expected to be shot at. I expected the worse,” he said on the witness stand. Saying that he heard gunshots, he admitted to jumping from the truck and firing his weapon.

“If I had known they were unarmed, I would not have fired. I would have never fired at unarmed civilians. I saw a handgun. That was a threat,” he said.

The Cover-up

The testimony of officers who took plea deals and cooperated with prosecutors would be instrumental to the government’s case that the shootings weren’t warranted and that a cover-up had taken place.

According to testimony from government witness Michael Hunter, who drove the police-commandeered Budget rental truck to the bridge armed with his own AK-47 assault rifle, the idea of a cover-up began almost immediately after the shooting.

Hunter admitted to firing on the bridge, but said the people on the bridge didn’t appear to be a threat. He would testify to seeing the victims of the Bartholomew party lying wounded on the ground and said it “was kind of messed up that females got shot.”

Hunter then said he went to other side of bridge, where Ronald Madison was lying on the ground struggling to breathe. Bowen, according to Hunter, then stepped on the back of the wounded man.

“We had a lot of problems because this was a bad shoot,” Lehrmann testified.

On the witness stand, Lehrmann admitted to federal prosecutor Cindy Chang that he participated in the cover-up “To protect the officers from prosecution.”

Not the First Accusation

This is not the first time defendants in the Danziger case faced prosecution. The federal charges against those tried come after previous attempts to try the police officers failed on a local level.

Known as the “Danziger 7,” the officers were cleared of charges in August 2008. One of the lasting images of the case, the officers of “Danziger 7” were greeted by a cheering throng of supporters and hailed as heroes when they surrendered to the state charges at Central Lock-Up.

Murder and attempted murder charges were thrown out against Bowen, Villavaso, Gisevius and Faulcon when Criminal District Court Judge Raymond Bigelow ruled that the state had misused grand jury testimony and given the grand jury flawed instructions. Charges against three other officers – Robert Barrios, Michael Hunter and Ignatius Hills – who later pleaded guilty to federal charges were additionally tossed from state court.

A little over a month after the state charges fizzled, federal interest in the case picked up, and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and the FBI began looking into the shootings.

Thin Blue Line Begins to Crumble

The case against the men accused in the federal Danziger trial began to pick up steam when officers accused in the “Danziger 7” and other officers who responded to the bridge that day started taking plea deals with federal authorities.

Five other officers – Michael Lohman, Jeffery Lehrmann, Michael Hunter, Robert Barrios and Ignatius Hill – pleaded guilty on a variety of federal charges, ultimately cooperating with federal prosecutors.

Lohman supervised Sgt. Gerard Dugue and Archie Kaufmann’s investigation into the shooting. A year and half after federal interest started in the Danziger trial, in Feb. 2009, Lohman retired from the NOPD, before taking a plea deal with federal authorities and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, admitting that he went to the bridge after the shootings but failed to properly collect evidence and helped create a fraudulent police report, assisted in plant a gun on the bridge and lied to investigators.

Two weeks later, Lehrmann pleaded guilty to one count of misprision of a felony, and signing a plea deal making him a government witness. Later, Hunter, Barrios and Hills would join the government’s team.

Only Gerard Dugue, who was in the courtroom as the verdcits were read and asked for a separate trial, is left to stand trial.

According to U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, based on mandatory minimum and maximum sentences, Bowen, Gisevius, Villavaso face 35 years to life in prison; Faulcon faces 60 years to life; and Kaufman faces from zero to 120 years. Judge Engelhardt can go above or below the sentencing guidelines.

Current Superindent Ronal Serpas is now faced with the challenge of rebuilding the reputation of the New Orleans Police Department.

The convicted officers "forever tainted many men and women of the NOPD who gave their all and gave so much each day during Katrina," said Serpas.

"We look to the future and the continued rebuilding of the NOPD.  We will continue to recognize that we must take the first steps to heal our relationship with the people of New Orleans.  Our commitment is unwavering.”

 

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