NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A jury on Friday found five New Orleans police officers guilty in the post-Katrina shooting deaths of two unarmed men and the wounding of four others as they tried to cross the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina. The officers were found not guilty of murder.
The verdicts were the second group of cop convictions stemming from post-Katrina shootings. The Danziger Bridge shooting was widely publicized because of the police cover-up – including planting of a gun – after the shootings – a cover-up that lasted for years.
“We have a lot of work left to do but we are moving in the right direction,” U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said after the verdict.
The jury found four officers – Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, Officer Anthony Villavaso, Officer Robert Faulcon and Sgt. Robert Gisevius – all guilty of violating the civil rights of James Brisette. Their actions caused his death, but it was not murder.
The jury found Officer Robert Faulcon guilty of the shooting death of Robert Madison. But again, the jury found that the death did not constitute murder.
The fifth officer convicted was retired Sgt. Arthur “Archie” Kaufman, who was not involved in the shootings but who led the police investigation of them. The jury found Kaufman guilty of every cover-up allegation, from wrongfully accusing innocent civilians of shooting at police to inventing witnesses to planting a gun and fabricating a story about the gun.
The four officers were charged with opening fire on two families on Sept. 4, 2005, as the families fled flooded New Orleans.
One man was killed from each family group. James Brisette, 17, was killed, and four members of the Bartholomew family were wounded.
In the other group, officers shot in the back Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, killing him.
According to the indictment, the officers drove onto the east side of the bridge in a Budget rental truck after receiving a call that officers nearby had been shot at. As the officers drove onto the bridge, they opened fire on the Bartholomew family, killing 17-year-old James Brissette, a family friend, and wounding Susan Bartholomew, Leonard Bartholomew III, 17-year-old Lesha Bartholomew and 19-year-old Jose Holmes.
Then the officers drove to the east side of the bridge, where two adult brothers were crossing on foot. “An officer shot Ronald Madison in the back as Madison ran away,” according to the indictment.
The indictment added that Officer Bowen, “while acting under color of law, kicked and stomped Madison while Madison was on the ground, alive but mortally wounded.”
The officers then arrested Ronald Madison’s brother, 49-year-old Lance Madison, and held him for three weeks on charges of attempted murder.
The grand jury indictment, unsealed in July 2010, alleged the officers had “specifically discussed using Hurricane Katrina to excuse failures in the investigation, and thereby to help make any inquiry into the shooting[s] go away.”
The indictment came after a 2-year federal investigation of the New Orleans Police Department’s actions after the 2005 hurricane.
Other instances of unarmed civilian deaths at the hands of police officers also have resulted in guilty verdicts, including the Sept. 2, 2005 shooting of a man in the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers; his charred body was later found in his burned car.
Former New Orleans police Lt. Michael Lohman pleaded guilty in February 2009 to his part in the cover-up: allowing a gun to be planted at the scene and writing a series of false reports.
Without giving names, Lohman testified that he had encouraged officers to come up with a story to justify the shootings.
Lohman’s confession to conspiracy and cover-up resulted in a flurry of speculation about the officers who worked closely with him.
According to the indictment, the two unnamed officers Lohman mentioned were Bowen and Gisevius.
The indictment said the officers did not collect evidence from the scene for more than a month, and that immediately after the shooting, Arthur Kaufman became the lead investigator responsible for investigation of the shootings.
Between September 2005 and May 2006 Kaufman prepared numerous reports on the shootings. The indictment stated that on Sept. 4, “and again on numerous occasions between then and January 2006, the officers involved in the Danziger Bridge shooting, led by defendants Kaufman, Bowen, and Gisevius, discussed and modified the stories they would tell about what happened on the bridge.”
The 32-page indictment stated that the officers “specifically discussed using Hurricane Katrina to excuse failures in the investigation, and thereby to help make any inquiry into the shooting go away.”
According to the indictment, Kaufman planted a gun at the scene of the shooting and lied under oath at a hearing about Lance Madison.
According to the indictment, in May 2006 Kaufman and Gerard Dugue submitted a co-authored incident report to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.
After Friday’s verdict, lead prosecutor Barbara “Bobbi” Bernstein told the crowd around the Federal Courthouse steps that she was in awe of the relatives of the bridge shooting victims, who kept their faith for years in an imperfect criminal justice system.
“This case started with people getting framed, and those people have continued to work within that system, and they have been very patient and they put their trust in us, and that’s something that everyone in the government took very, very seriously,” Bernstein said, according to the Times-Picayune.
Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 14.
The sixth defendant, former police Sgt. Gerard Dugue, is scheduled for a separate trial, to begin in late September.