New Orleans Police Get Decades in Prison in Katrina Killings

Four New Orleans police officers were sentenced to 38 to 65 years in prison for convictions including violating the civil rights of two people killed a week after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.

U.S. District Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt in New Orleans sentenced a fifth officer today to six years in prison for covering up the crimes.

A federal jury in August convicted officers Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso of opening fire on unarmed black civilians on the city’s Danziger Bridge and conspiring with others to cover up their actions. The fifth, homicide detective Arthur “Archie” Kaufman, was convicted of conspiring to make the shootings appear justified.

“We hope that today’s sentences give a measure of peace and closure to the victims of this terrible shooting, who have suffered unspeakable pain and who have waited so patiently for justice to be done,” Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in an e-mailed statement. “The officers who shot innocent people on the bridge and then went to great lengths to cover up their own crimes have finally been held accountable for their actions.”

The civil rights violations caused the deaths of James Brissette and Ronald Madison, the jury found, which meant that the four officers directly involved faced a maximum punishment of life in prison. Bowen was sentenced to 40 years, Faulcon to 65, Gisevius to 40, Villavaso to 38, and Kaufman to six.

After Katrina

The shootings took place on Sept. 4, 2005, one week after Katrina flooded most of New Orleans and one day after stranded evacuees were airlifted and bused to safety.

A July 2010 indictment accused Bowen, Gisevius, Faulcon and Villavaso of firing on a family on the east side of the Danziger Bridge, killing James Brissette, 17, and wounding four other people. The defendants said they were responding to a policewoman’s radio call of officers and rescue workers in danger.

The U.S. accused Faulcon of shooting Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man with mental disabilities, on the other side of the bridge. The jury said Faulcon’s actions didn’t amount to murder.

Kaufman, the homicide detective, was charged with joining the officers in a conspiracy to conceal what happened at the bridge. Kaufman was convicted on 10 counts including obstruction of justice and fabrication of evidence.

‘See His Father’

Engelhardt said at the sentencing hearing today that he was restricted by federal guidelines or would have imposed shorter prison terms. He noted that Faulcon’s son was born after Katrina.

“He will never see his father outside a prison wall under this sentencing scheme,” Engelhardt said.

The judge said that five other police officers who pleaded guilty received much lower sentences. “One can only be astonished and deeply troubled by the plea bargains allowed in the Danziger Bridge matter,” he said.

“Using liars to convict liars is no way to pursue justice,” Engelhardt said, referring to cooperating officers who testified against the defendants.

Federal prosecutors wouldn’t have had a case without enlisting the help of cooperating witnesses, Perez, the assistant attorney general, said in a conference call with reporters today.

‘Prosecution Fell Apart’

“It’s important to understand where we were in the year 2008, which was three-plus years after the shooting and the state prosecution fell apart, frankly, and we had nothing,” Perez said. “We had to build a case from scratch and you don’t go to the witness store and pick out witnesses to build a case. You have to do your leg work and see where you can go.”

Attorneys for the four accused shooters depicted their clients at trial as dedicated officers who refused to abandon their posts, rescuing residents from Katrina’s floodwaters both before and after the shootings.

The defendants claimed they were responding to gunfire and that they believed the shooting victims were a danger to themselves and others. They also denied involvement in a cover-up.

The U.S. said at trial there was no evidence that any of the civilians had guns.

The judge said the “context of Katrina cannot be ignored” in the case. This included widespread looting and escalating fear of gunfire, Engelhardt said.

‘Enormous Loss’

“In short, one would have to be here to understand the sheer adversity and enormous loss,” the judge said. “This excuses none of the criminal conduct herein yet it must be taken into account.”

Before issuing the sentences, Engelhardt heard testimony at today’s hearing from several witnesses, including victims or their relatives, and supporters of the convicted police officers.

Several police officers and supervisors testified on Bowen’s behalf, describing desperate rescues, and fear and exhaustion, in a city heavily flooded by Hurricane Katrina. “At night when the sun did go down, there was a lot of sporadic gunfire,” Officer David Slicho recalled. “Every day when the sun came up, we’d say -- where’s the federal government?”

Duty First

Faulcon’s mother, Martha Faulcon, said her son put his police duty to New Orleans first after Katrina hit. “His wife was 42 weeks pregnant,” she said. Faulcon could have evacuated with his wife to Texas; instead he gave her the keys to the car and joined other police officers doing rescue work, the mother said. “He always put other people before him,” she said of her son.

Lance Madison, whose brother Ronald was killed on the bridge, asked the judge to impose “maximum sentences” on all five defendants. Madison, a former National Football League kick return specialist, told the judge he and his brother ran for their lives on the Danziger Bridge when a group of men opened fire on them.

“I think I ran faster that day than any day in my life,” Madison said. “I truly do not know why I’m alive today.”

The officers “shot Ronald down like an animal,” Madison told the judge. “Can you imagine how I felt when I found out the people that shot him were police officers?” Calling each defendant by name, Lance Madison then said: “You are responsible for the nightmares that have haunted my family.”

Convictions Voided

Engelhardt voided convictions on some counts in an Oct. 20 ruling.

Bowen was charged with kicking and stomping Madison as he lay “on the ground, alive but mortally wounded,” according to the indictment. Bowen denied the allegation, contending the witness who accused him of kicking Madison lied.

Engelhardt threw out the conviction on this count, finding the witness wasn’t credible and the government failed to provide evidence supporting the claim. “In fact, the government offered no evidence whatsoever that any type of kick or stomp, by any person, caused any bodily injury whatsoever to Madison,” Engelhardt wrote.

The U.S. also alleged that the defendants conspired to “cover up what happened on the bridge” by filing charges against Jose Holmes, a civilian who was injured on the bridge, and Lance Madison.

The judge threw out convictions against Bowen, Gisevius, Faulcon and Villavaso on the accusation of attempting to implicate Holmes. Engelhardt found that “the government failed to prove that any of these defendants specifically identified Jose Holmes by name.” He also threw out convictions on evidence grounds against Bowen and Gisevius over claims they attempted to implicate Lance Madison.

He upheld the jury’s convictions on the other counts.

The case is U.S. v. Bowen, 2:10-cr-00204, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).

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