New Orleans police go on trial in Katrina shooting deaths

NEW ORLEANS Thu Jun 23, 2011 10:22am EDT

A caution tape floats in the wind over a walkway running alongside the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans, November 10, 2005. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

A caution tape floats in the wind over a walkway running alongside the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans, November 10, 2005.

Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

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NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Wednesday in the trial of five police officers accused of shooting and killing of two people and wounding of four others days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.

The case, one of a string of federal civil rights prosecutions brought against local police, is one of the largest police brutality cases ever mounted by the U.S. Justice Department, according to legal analysts.

The officers, some of whom are still on the job, face multiple counts of deprivation of civil rights, use of a weapon in a violent crime, or obstruction of justice.

The charges stem from a September 4, 2005, shooting incident on the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans and from an alleged cover-up that went on for years afterward.

The trial of Kenneth Bowen, Robert Faulcon Jr., Robert Gisevius Jr., Arthur Kaufmann and Anthony Villavaso II is expected to last up to six weeks. A sixth defendant, Officer Gerard Dugue, is scheduled for trial in the fall.

Killed in the shootings were James Brissette, 17, and Ronald Madison, 40.

Five other current or former officers have pleaded guilty to various charges and admitted to being either directly involved in the Danziger Bridge incident or aiding in an alleged cover-up.

"The alleged cover-up adds a whole different dimension to the case," said former federal prosecutor and New Orleans attorney Harry Rosenburg said.

"It's not just about how officers might have reacted on that day but what occurred in the following several years after the dust settled, ranging from false reports to fictitious witnesses to an allegedly planted weapon," he said.

Working from a makeshift station in the aftermath of the Katrina's flooding, the officers in question received a call that police officers were being fired upon on the Danziger Bridge, according to court documents.

A number of them jumped into a Budget rental truck and headed for the bridge. The shooting began when the group came upon unarmed civilians who were walking on or near the bridge, the documents said.

Other officers have testified that two officers who jumped from the truck fired on the civilians, with one sergeant firing repeatedly as they lay wounded on the ground.

Rosenburg said a key question in the trial will be whether any officers were actually fired upon that day and, if so, who did the shooting.

In March, two former New Orleans cops were sentenced to prison for their roles in killing a man and burning his body shortly after Katrina.

A few weeks before that sentencing, the Justice Department released a scathing report of local police practices following a lengthy probe and is expected to eventually impose an order mandating dozens of changes.

Civil rights professor Jack Beerman told Reuters the trial could be the most significant case of alleged police brutality since members of the Los Angeles police department faced charges in the beating of civilian Rodney King in the 1990s.

Los Angeles residents rioted in April 1992 when those officers were found innocent.

"The important thing is a sense of justice for the community," said Beerman, of the Boston University School of Law. "If locals perceive that the government is not responding when civil rights are violated, you have a problem."

The officers in the Danziger case initially faced murder or attempted murder charges. But a judge tossed the case out of court in August 2008, citing errors by the prosecutor's office. In July 2010, federal prosecutors indicted the officers on the civil rights charges.

(Editing by Karen Brooks and Peter Bohan)

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Comments (2)
PatriotPaul wrote:
As a former Probation Officer I can attest that in far too many law enforcement agencies there’s a code of “loyalty”. If you narc out another officer you will probably pay for it. It may be a simple slashing of your car tires, or worse, someone not backing you up in a dangerous situation. Until this culture of protecting the guilty, just as it was in the Catholic Church is dismantled we will continue to see these situations arise.

Also I wish the media would still concentrate more on correcting the mistakes it made in its reporting after Katrina. While we believed the rumors inside, the murders and rapes in the Superdome were not supported by evidence. We all were controlled by fear and rumor but this in no way dismisses the cops behavior.

Paul Harris
Author, “Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina”

Jun 23, 2011 8:43am EDT  --  Report as abuse
jhardaway wrote:
As a former Los Angeles resident, I can attest that the media and Mayor Tom Bradley turned another day “in the hood” into a full fledged riot by Bradley getting on TV and telling the viewing audience that HE was disappointed in the verdict and could UNDERSTAND the rioters anger.
Politicians and the media feed on fear, and realize that it keeps you coming back far longer than good feelings do.

Jun 23, 2011 10:48am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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