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NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A federal jury found four New Orleans police officers guilty on Friday of civil rights violations over the shooting deaths of civilians in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a subsequent cover-up.
But the jury stopped short of calling the shootings murder, declining to classify them as intentional. A fifth officer was also convicted of helping the others cover up the incident.
The charges were linked to the New Orleans police shootings on the Danziger Bridge in 2005 that killed two civilians, 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, and seriously wounded four others.
"Today's verdict sends a powerful, unmistakable message," U.S. Attorney Jim Letten told reporters outside the courthouse.
"The citizens of this country will not, should not, and we intend that they will never have to fear the individuals who are called upon to protect them."
The officers had faced up to 25 counts each for their role in the September 4, 2005, shootings that happened when much of New Orleans was still underwater following the hurricane.
The decision means the jury saw the deaths of Madison and Brissette as resulting from police willfully violating their civil rights, but that police did not arrive at the scene with murderous intent.
Officers Robert Faulcon, Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius and Anthony Villavaso were found guilty of depriving citizens of their rights in relation to the death of Brissette and the shooting of four others, as well as using firearms in the deprivation of those rights.
Faulcon was also found guilty of violating civil rights and use of a firearm in the killing of Madison.
The men were also convicted of various charges connected to a subsequent cover-up, including conspiracy to obstruct justice and violate civil rights, and false prosecution.
The fifth officer, retired homicide detective Arthur "Archie" Kaufman, was convicted on 10 counts related to the cover-up, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, fabricating witnesses, falsifying victim statements, misleading federal investigators and falsifying evidence.
Outside the courthouse, lead prosecutor Barbara Bernstein and Madison's brother Lance, who was with him on the bridge that day, embraced each other, weeping.
While prosecutors painted a picture of out-of-control police officers firing indiscriminately on innocent bystanders, defense lawyers maintained that officers saw guns and believed they were in danger.
On the day of the shooting, the four defendants were among a dozen officers who sped to the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans after hearing a radio call that officers were under fire nearby.
As they approached in a rental truck, they came upon two groups of civilians: the Bartholomews and the Madisons, who were walking up the bridge. Witnesses testified that none of the civilians had guns and that officers opened fire without warning, spraying bullets at the victims.
Brissette was killed on the east end of the bridge moments after the officers arrived, and four other members of his family were seriously wounded.
Meanwhile, on the west end of the bridge, Faulcon shot Ronald Madison, who died minutes after receiving a shotgun blast to his back. Police later arrested Lance Madison and charged him with attempted murder of police officers, setting off a years-long cover-up of the shooting.
Faulcon, the only defendant to testify, said he had been filled with "indescribable fear" at the time of the shooting.
Lawyers for the officers, who had argued that chaotic conditions after Katrina heightened officers' fears that civilians had and would use weapons, said they were disappointed in the verdict but respected the jury's decision.
"The silver lining is, they didn't convict my client of murder," said Lindsay Larson, lawyer for Faulcon.
While all the defendants could spend the rest of their lives in prison, a murder conviction would have carried a mandatory life sentence, eliminating any chance of parole. The sentencing hearing has been set for December 14.
The federal government spent nearly three years mounting its case against the officers after state indictments related to the incident were quashed in 2008 due to errors by the district attorney's office.
Writing by Karen Brooks; Editing by Jerry Norton and Cynthia Johnston