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NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A federal jury on Friday found four New Orleans police officers guilty in the shooting deaths of two civilians in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and also convicted a former policeman of helping cover up the killings.
The jury's decision means the deaths of Ronald Madison, 40, and James Brissette, 17, were the result of police willfully violating the victims' civil rights but that the slayings were not murder.
Four people also were seriously injured in the shootings on the Danziger Bridge on September 4, 2005, after the officers responded to a call about gunfire.
The five convicted officers could be sentenced to life in prison.
"Today's verdict sends a powerful, a powerful unmistakable message," said U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, speaking to reporters outside the New Orleans courthouse.
The shootings occurred a few days after Hurricane Katrina had submerged parts of New Orleans under roof-high floodwaters, leaving thousands of people homeless and setting off chaos throughout the city.
In the death of Brissette and shooting of four others, officers Kenneth Bowen, Robert Faulcon, Robert Gisevius and Anthony Villavaso were found guilty of depriving citizens of their rights and using firearms in doing so.
In addition, Faulcon, the only defendant who testified at trial, was found guilty of violating civil rights and use of a firearm in the killing of Madison.
The officers also were convicted of various charges connected with the cover-up, including conspiracy to obstruct justice and violate civil rights, and false prosecution.
Prosecutors painted a picture of out-of-control officers firing indiscriminately on innocent bystanders in the incident while defense lawyers maintained the police saw guns in the hands of civilians and believed they were in danger.
They said chaotic conditions in New Orleans after Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people, heightened police officers' expectations that civilians in the streets had and would use guns.
Faulcon testified he had been filled with "indescribable fear" at the time of the shooting.
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.
The jury deliberated more than two days.
A sixth officer who was charged in the cover-up will be tried separately.
Reporting by Kathy Finn; Writing by Karen Brooks; Editing by Jerry Norton and Bill Trott