NEW ORLEANS - A case that became the centerpiece of the Justice Department's push to clean up the troubled New Orleans Police Department was expected to close a chapter Wednesday with a federal judge sentencing five former police officers for their roles in deadly shootings of unarmed residents on a bridge in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina.
U.S. District Kurt Engelhardt began hearing hours of arguments by prosecutors and defence attorneys and testimony from relatives of shooting victims and the officers.
Four of the five officers who were convicted at trial last year face decades in prison under sentencing guidelines. While the judge isn't bound by those guidelines, Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon were convicted of firearms charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences.
Arthur Kaufman, a retired sergeant who wasn't charged in the shootings but participated in a coverup, faces significantly less prison time under the guidelines.
Lance Madison, whose brother, Ronald, was killed at the Danziger Bridge, asked the judge to sentence all defendants to the maximum.
"This has been a long and painful six-and-a-half years," he said. "The people of New Orleans and my family are ready for justice."
He individually addressed each defendant, 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 coverup: "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.
Engelhardt also heard testimony from several officers not charged in the case but who worked in the city after the storm. They described a climate of chaos and lawlessness that left officers fearing for their lives.
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."
A total of 20 current or former New Orleans police officers have been charged in a series of Justice Department probes, most of which centre on actions during the aftermath of the 2005 storm. Eleven of those officers were charged in the Danziger Bridge case, which stunned a city with a long history of police corruption.
Police shot six unarmed people, killing two, on the bridge as they responded to another officer's distress call. Realizing it was a "bad shoot," police immediately embarked on a brazen coverup that included a planted gun, fabricated witnesses and bogus reports, according to prosecutors.
Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, leading to the collapse of levees and flooding an estimated 80 per cent 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.
On the morning of Sept. 4, one group was crossing the Danziger Bridge in the city's Gentilly area when police received calls that shots were being fired and rushed to the span. Gunfire reports were common after Katrina and agencies were strained by the unprecedented disaster.
At the Danziger Bridge, the worst elements of the chaos came together as police fired on a group crossing the bridge to what they believed was safe haven.
The mentally disabled Ronald Madison, 40, and 17-year-old James Brissette died in the shootings.
Brissette's mother, Sherrel Johnson, told the judge Wednesday that "my baby was as innocent as the day he was born. My child never even got to start his life."
Faulcon was convicted of fatally shooting Ronald Madison, but the jury decided the killing didn't amount to murder. Faulcon, 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 of the officers were convicted of participating in a coverup. Five other former officers who pleaded guilty to participating in the coverup and co-operated with federal investigators are already serving prison terms.
Wednesday's sentencing won't be 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 coverup.
Dugue's first trial was cut short in January when the judge declared a mistrial. He ruled Justice Department prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein may have unfairly influenced the jury by mentioning the name of a man who was beaten to death by a New Orleans police officer in a case unrelated to Dugue's.
Bowen, Gisevius and Villavaso have been fired. Faulcon quit the force shortly after the storm. Kaufman retired before last year's trial.
- New Orleans Police Department
- Danziger Bridge
- New Orleans