Aug. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Four New Orleans police officers opened fire on unarmed civilians a week after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and conspired with others to cover up their actions, a federal prosecutor told jurors at the end of trial.
The defendants claimed they were responding to gunfire and that shooting victims may have been armed, Assistant U.S. Attorney Theodore Carter said in his closing argument today in federal court in New Orleans.
“We have actual witnesses who told you there were no guns,” Carter said. “We have actual shooters who told you there were no guns.” One of the defendants acknowledged at the trial that there was a cover-up, Carter said.
The shootings took place on Sept. 4, 2005, one week after Hurricane Katrina flooded most of New Orleans -- and one day after stranded evacuees had been airlifted or bused to safety. The defendants were indicted in July 2010.
Four officers are accused of firing on a family on the east side of the Danziger Bridge, killing a 17-year-old and wounding four other people. One of the officers is also accused of shooting Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man with mental disabilities, on the west side of the bridge. Madison died at the scene, the U.S. said.
A fifth officer on trial, homicide detective Arthur “Archie” Kaufman, allegedly joined the officers in a conspiracy to cover up what happened at the bridge and to make the shootings appear justified. Kaufman is charged with 10 counts including obstruction of justice and fabrication of evidence.
Lawyers for both sides finished closing arguments today and the jury will begin deliberating tomorrow.
New Orleans officers Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso are charged with causing the death of the 17-year-old, James Brissette. The U.S. alleges Faulcon shot Madison and Bowen stomped on him.
A sixth officer indicted with Kaufman and the others, Gerard Dugue, was also charged with obstruction of justice. His trial is scheduled for September.
“This wasn’t a gunfight -- this was carnage,” Carter said.
“The only thing James Brissette pointed at these officers was his back,” the prosecutor said. “The only thing Ronald Madison pointed at defendant Faulcon was his back.”
Carter said Kaufman was responsible for a gun being planted into evidence. Another officer, one of five who pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up, said Kaufman retrieved the gun from his garage, Carter told the jury.
Kaufman’s lawyer, Stephen London, said the detective wasn’t involved in a cover-up. Dugue, the other homicide investigator, was responsible for the final report on the shootings, the attorney said in his closing arguments.
Another officer put Kaufman’s notes in the final report while the defendant was out of town, London said.
Kaufman wasn’t responsible for a planted gun, he said. Officers in a conversation wiretapped by the government never mentioned a gun from Kaufman’s house being used as part of a cover-up, he said.
Kaufman reported that two shooting victims said that Jose Holmes, a civilian who was also shot by police on the bridge, fired a gun, London said. This was supported by trial testimony from a nurse who treated Holmes, he said.
Carter, the prosecutor, said in his closing that the nurse misunderstood Holmes.
According to the indictment, the defendants conspired to “cover up what happened on the bridge” by filing charges against two victims of their conspiracy -- Holmes and Lance Madison, brother of Ronald Madison.
Faulcon is sorry for his role in Madison’s death, his lawyer, Paul Fleming, told the jury.
The officers were responding to a distress call from a policewoman, he said.
An officer said over her radio, “There they are. They’re getting away,” the lawyer said, quoting policewoman Jennifer Dupre.
“I am not in any way, shape or form blaming Mr. Madison for what happened,” Fleming said. Faulcon’s police training convinced him “that Mr. Madison was about to shoot him,” he said. The decision to shoot was reasonable and justifiable, he said.
“Robert Faulcon didn’t kill James Brissette,” he said. Another officer, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and isn’t on trial, shot Brissette, Fleming said.
Nor did Faulcon admit to a cover-up as the prosecutor said, the defense lawyer told the jury. The government lawyer who cross-examined him “tripped him, she got him to say things he didn’t mean.”
Faulcon, the only one of the five defendants to testify at the trial, said he didn’t know which civilians were armed.
“If I would have known those people didn’t have weapons, I wouldn’t have fired my weapon,” he said.
Faulcon testified during cross-examination by prosecutor Barbara Bernstein that reports by Kaufman on the shootings were false.
“You agree all those reports were false?” Bernstein asked.
“Yes,” Faulcon replied.
“You agree there was a cover-up in this case,” she asked.
“Based on what I know now, yes,” he answered.
Villavaso believed the civilians were armed, his attorney, Timothy Meche, said today. Meche urged the jury to listen to 70 minutes of wiretapped conversations made before the indictments between Villavaso and officer Robert Barrios, who was cooperating with the government.
On the government tape, which was played before the jury July 25, Villavaso insists “on the Bible” he saw armed civilians on the bridge.
Carter said Villavaso suspected he was being taped in part due to media speculation after three initial guilty pleas in the case early last year.
Frank DeSalvo, attorney for Bowen, said his client didn’t stomp on the dying Madison. “If he had really gone over there and stomped Ronald Madison that would have been a terrible thing,” the attorney said.
There is no evidence for the charge, DeSalvo said. “There is no footprint on his back. There is a smudge on his shoulder.” He said the allegation was made only by former officer Michael Hunter, who also pleaded guilty to charges related to a cover-up. “Michael Hunter is a liar,” DeSalvo said.
Eric Hessler, attorney for Gisevius, said his client should be cleared because he didn’t shoot anybody and didn’t participate in a cover-up. “They never proved for one second that he shot anybody,” Hessler said.
The case is U.S. v. Bowen, 2:10-cr-00204, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at firstname.lastname@example.org