Police Officers Charged in Deaths in Hurricane’s Aftermath

By SHAILA DEWAN; Brenda Goodman contributed reporting.

Originally published in The New York Times on December 29, 2006.

Seven New Orleans police officers were indicted Thursday on charges of first-degree murder or attempted murder in connection with the deaths of two men on a bridge six days after Hurricane Katrina struck.

Four other civilians suffered gunshot wounds in the episode, which took place on Sept. 4, 2005. No officers were hurt.

The shootings occurred while much of the New Orleans area was still under water, communication among officers was poor and the city was chaotic. The New Orleans Police Department’s initial account — that officers were responding to reports of snipers firing on contractors — seemed to confirm fears of rampant lawlessness in the city.

But that account was repeatedly revised. At one point, the police said they were responding to reports that two officers had been shot. The victims, for their part, said they had simply been seeking help after the storm left them stranded.

Frank Zibilich, a lawyer for one of the police officers, said that although first-degree murder in Louisiana did not require proof of premeditation, the charges were harsh.

”It’s mind-boggling to me that officers, under the intense circumstances that were going on in New Orleans at this time, that seven officers decide simultaneously that they’re going to go commit murder,” Mr. Zibilich said.

Two families were involved in the shootings. At the base of the bridge, the officers encountered the Bartholomew family: a couple and their teenage daughter and nephew, and the nephew’s friend James Brissette, 19. The family, which filed a civil lawsuit against the officers and the police department, said in court papers that it was trying to reach a grocery store on the other side of the bridge when the police officers began firing at them. Mr. Brissette died, while the nephew, Jose Holmes Jr., 19, jumped behind a barricade. As he lay on the ground, according to the court papers, he was shot at from a distance and then approached by a man who shot him point blank in the abdomen.

Mr. Holmes wound up partly paralyzed with a colostomy bag. Susan Bartholomew, the mother, lost her right arm.

”The police in this case used the devastation of the storm to behave in a criminal manner,” said Gary W. Bizal, a lawyer who is representing Mr. Holmes in the civil case. ”They held themselves above the law, and now it’s coming back to roost.”

Near the top of the bridge, according to a statement issued by the office of Eddie Jordan, the Orleans Parish district attorney, the police encountered Ronald Madison, a mentally retarded man, and his brother Lance, who had been employed by Federal Express for 25 years. The brothers had been forced to swim through floodwaters and had been trying to reach their mother’s house across the bridge, their family said in its civil lawsuit. The family said the brothers were on the bridge with other people they did not know when a rental truck pulled up and a group of heavily armed officers jumped out and began firing.

Ronald Madison, 40, died after being shot seven times in the back. His brother was arrested at the scene and charged with eight counts of attempted murder of a police officer, though no weapon was recovered. The grand jury that handed down Thursday’s indictments declined to indict Lance Madison.

A spokeswoman for Warren J. Riley, the superintendent of police, said he would not comment on the case.

← Blog