NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal judge sentenced five former police officers to years in prison for the deadly shootings on a New Orleans bridge in the chaotic days following Hurricane Katrina but not before lashing out at prosecutors for allowing others involved to serve lighter penalties for their crimes. The case that wrapped up Wednesday was the centerpiece of a Justice Department push to clean up New Orleans' police department that has long been tainted with corruption.
[Related: After sentencing, focus shifts to reforms]
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt expressed frustration that he was bound by mandatory minimum sentencing laws to imprison former Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius and former officers Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon for decades when other officers who engaged in similar conduct on the Danziger Bridge — but cut deals with prosecutors — are serving no more than eight years behind bars.
"These through-the-looking-glass plea deals that tied the hands of this court ... are an affront to the court and a disservice to the community," he said.
Police gunned down 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, who were both unarmed, and wounded four others on Sept. 4, 2005, less than a week after the storm devastated New Orleans. To cover it up, the officers planted a gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports. Defense attorneys have indicated they will appeal.
Engelhardt also criticized prosecutors for the different ways they charged those who didn't cooperate with a Justice Department civil rights investigation and those who did. The charges were filed in such a way that they left judges with little discretion in handing out sentences in each set of cases, Engelhardt said.
Faulcon received the stiffest sentence of 65 years. Bowen and Gisevius each got 40 years while Villavaso was sentenced to 38. All four were convicted of federal firearms charges that carried mandatory minimum sentences ranging from 35 to 60 years in prison. Faulcon was convicted in both deadly shootings.
"The court imposes them purely as a matter of statutory mandate," Engelhardt said.
Retired Sgt. Arthur "Archie" Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shootings, received six years in prison — a sentence below the federal guidelines. Kaufman wasn't charged in the shootings but was convicted of helping orchestrate the cover-up.
During a scathing lecture that lasted roughly two hours, Engelhardt questioned the credibility of officers who cut deals and testified against the defendants during last year's trial.
"Citing witnesses for perjury at this trial would be like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500," Engelhardt said.
Justice Department attorney Bobbi Bernstein defended prosecutors' tactics, saying the officers who cooperated with the probe gave them the breakthrough they needed to reveal the cover-up.
"Those deals are the reason that the whole world now knows what happened on the Danziger Bridge," she said.
The sentences were significantly lower than what prosecutors had recommended. They had asked the judge to sentence the four shooters to prison terms ranging from nearly 60 years for Villavaso to 87 years for Faulcon.
Engelhardt questioned why prosecutors sought a 20-year prison sentence for Kaufman when Michael Lohman, who was the highest-ranking officer at the scene of the shooting and assigned Kaufman to investigate, got just four years after pleading guilty to participating in the cover-up. Engelhardt said Lohman had the authority to quash the cover-up and didn't.
"The buck started and stopped with him," the judge said.
He also questioned why prosecutors allowed a former detective, Jeffrey Lehrmann, to receive a sentence of three years in prison when his role in the conspiracy was similar to Kaufman's.
"These sentences are, in the court's opinion, blind," Engelhardt said.
Steve London, one of Kaufman's attorneys, said his client was pleased that the judge gave him a sentence below the guidelines, which had called for a sentence ranging from a little over eight years to a little over 10.
"This judge recognized that the government put liars on the stand to testify and convict other people," London said.
Lindsay Larson, one of Faulcon's attorneys, said the judge "laid out the blueprint" for how defense attorneys will challenge the firearms convictions and sentences.
"We have only just begun to fight," he said.
Tom Perez, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said federal investigators transformed a cold case into the "most significant police case since Rodney King."
"We didn't have a case in 2008 when we inherited this. We had nothing. And hindsight is 20/20. It is easy to look back in hindsight and say why did you do this, why did you do that," he said. "You don't go to the witness store to pick out your witnesses. You take what is dealt."
Engelhardt heard hours of arguments and testimony earlier Wednesday from prosecutors, defense attorneys, relatives of shooting victims and the officers.
"This has been a long and painful six-and-a-half years," said Lance Madison, whose mentally disabled brother, Ronald, was killed. "The people of New Orleans and my family are ready for justice."
He addressed each defendant individually, including Faulcon, who shot his brother: "When I look at you, my pain becomes unbearable. You took the life of an angel and basically ripped my heart out."
Madison also said he was horrified by Kaufman's actions and role in the cover-up: "You tried to frame me, a man you knew was innocent, and send me to prison for the rest of my life." Lance Madison was arrested on attempted murder charges after police falsely accused him of shooting at the officers on the bridge. He was jailed for three weeks before a judge freed him.
The Rev. Robert Faulcon Sr. told the judge his son "didn't go looking for trouble."
"He was on duty and he was called to do a job, and that's what he did to the best of his ability," the elder Faulcon said.
Twenty current or former New Orleans police officers have been charged in a series of Justice Department probes, most of which center on actions during the aftermath of Katrina. Eleven of those officers were charged in the Danziger Bridge case, which stunned a city with a long history of police corruption.
Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, leading to the collapse of levees and flooding an estimated 80 percent of the city. New Orleans was plunged into chaos as residents who hadn't evacuated were driven from their homes to whatever high places they could find.
Officers who worked in the city at the time but were not charged in the bridge case on Wednesday told Engelhardt of the lawlessness that followed the flood, and that they feared for their lives.
On the morning of Sept. 4, one group of residents was crossing the Danziger Bridge in the city's Gentilly area to what they perceived as safety when police arrived.
The officers had received calls that shots were being fired. Gunfire reports were common after Katrina.
Faulcon was convicted of fatally shooting Madison, but the jury decided the killing didn't amount to murder. He, Gisevius, Bowen and Villavaso were convicted in Brissette's killing, but jurors didn't hold any of them individually responsible for causing his death.
All five were convicted of participating in a cover-up.
Wednesday's sentencing isn't the final chapter in the case. The convicted officers are expected to appeal, and Gerard Dugue, a retired sergeant, is scheduled to be retried in May on charges stemming from his alleged role in the cover-up.
Associated Press writer Alan Sayre in New Orleans contributed to this report.