Former New Orleans officers sentenced in Katrina shootings

This article was originally published in the Morris Herlad-News on April 5, 2012. See the full article online.

By Richard Fausset — Los Angeles Times

Punctuating what New Orleans’ mayor called a “dark chapter” in his city’s history, five former local police officers were sentenced Wednesday for their role in the Danziger Bridge shooting incident, which left two innocent people dead and four others seriously wounded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Engelhardt handed down long sentences for four of the officers, ranging from 38 to 65 years in prison. The fifth, former Sgt. Arthur Kaufman — who was not involved in the shootings, but was involved in an attempted cover-up — received six years.

The Danziger case was the most notorious of several instances of violent police misconduct in the days after Hurricane Katrina, when great swaths of the city were flooded, looters roamed the streets, and many public services, including the Police Department, were in dramatic disarray.

In August, after a six-week trial, a jury found the former officers of the New Orleans Police Department guilty of federal civil rights and obstruction of justice statutes.

They were part of a group that rushed toward the bridge Sept. 4, 2005, in response to a radio call that fellow officers were under fire.

Prosecutors alleged that Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius, and officers Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso, arrived on the bridge and fired on an unarmed family walking in search of food and supplies, killing a 17-year-old family friend, James Brissette, and wounding four others.

Minutes later, police shot at two brothers, Lance and Ronald Madison. Faulcon, witnesses said, shot the mentally disabled Ronald Madison in the back as he ran away. Bowen allegedly stomped and kicked him before he died.

As part of the cover-up, Lance Madison was falsely charged with eight counts of attempting to kill police officers, and was held in jail for three weeks. The Justice Department subsequently launched a sweeping investigation of the New Orleans Police Department, determining that its officers often “show a lack of respect for the civil rights and dignity” of the people they serve.

Justice Department and city officials are currently hammering out the details of a consent decree to allow federal oversight of the long-troubled department. On Wednesday, the sentencings gave federal officials a chance to remind local police that future malfeasance would not be tolerated.

“My hope as we move forward is that the men and women of NOPD and all law enforcement will conduct themselves always in a manner that will withstand the scrutiny of the bright light of justice,” said David Welker, special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Orleans Division, in a statement.

The sentences came after the judge heard from shooting victims, including Jose Holmes Jr., who had his attorney, Gary Bizal, read a statement directed at the disgraced police.

“For you to have shot an unarmed innocent person should make you feel guilty and ashamed,” Holmes wrote, according to the statement, which Bizal provided to the Los Angeles Times. “I have you to blame for all of my scars, depression and embarrassment of having to wear a colostomy bag. … But when it’s all said and done I’m a loving person, so I have to forgive you for what you’ve done to me because God forbids me to have hatred in my heart.”

Though Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the sentencings brought “significant closure,” Bizal noted that the officers will probably appeal, that another suspect, former NOPD Sgt. Gerard Dugue, still faces trial, and that civil rights lawsuits filed by the victims in federal civil court will have to be resolved once the criminal cases are over.

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