A federal jury on Friday convicted five current or former police officers in deadly shootings on a New Orleans bridge after Hurricane Katrina, a high-profile victory for the US Department of Justice in its push to clean up the city’s troubled police department.
The case was a high-stakes test of the effort to rid the police department of corruption and brutality. A total of 20 current or former New Orleans police officers were charged last year in a series of federal probes. Most of the cases center on actions during the aftermath of the Aug. 29, 2005, storm, which plunged the flooded city into a state of lawlessness and desperation.
Sergeants Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, Officer Anthony Villavaso and former officer Robert Faulcon were convicted of civil rights violations in the shootings that killed two people and wounded four on the Danziger Bridge less than a week after the storm. They face possible life prison sentences.
Retired Sergeant Arthur “Archie” Kaufman and the other four men were also convicted of engaging in a brazen cover-up that included a planted gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports. The five men were convicted of all 25 counts they faced.
Shaun Clarke, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who moved from New Orleans to Houston after Katrina, said the verdicts are “critically important” to the Department of Justice’s reform efforts.
“It’s a huge verdict for the government,” he said. “Of all the cases concerning alleged misconduct by police officers after Katrina, this was the one that had the highest national profile.”
Faulcon was found guilty of fatally shooting Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, but the jury decided his killing did not amount to murder. Faulcon, Gisevius, Bowen and Villavaso were convicted in the death of 17-year-old James Brissette.
Jurors did not have to decide whether Brissette was murdered because they did not hold any of the defendants individually responsible for causing his death.
Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the deadly encounter on the bridge, was not charged in the shootings.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who invited the justice department last year to conduct a thorough review of the police department, said the verdicts “provide significant closure to a dark chapter in our city’s history.”
In March, the Department of Justice issued a blistering report that said New Orleans police officers had often used deadly force without justification, repeatedly made unconstitutional arrests and engaged in racial profiling.
Landrieu has said he expected the federal review to bring about court-ordered reforms.
Five former officers pleaded guilty to participating in cover-up of the bridge shootings and testified during the trial. Another former officer, retired Sergeant Gerard Dugue, has a separate trial scheduled to start next month.
Brissette’s mother, Sherrel Johnson, said she was relieved by the verdict after “a long, hard six years” and would now try to move on. But she lamented what her son has lost.
“For him there will be no prom, no baby, no nothing. My child will never have nothing,” she said.
Defense attorney Roger Kitchens, who represented Villavaso, said he believed negative media coverage of the case tainted jurors.
“At this point, I don’t think it’s possible for a New Orleans police officer to get a fair trial in the city of New Orleans. And I don’t think they got one today,” he said.