A federal jury on Friday convicted five current or former New Orleans police officers of civil rights violations in one of the lowest moments for city police in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: the fatal shootings of a teenager and a mentally disabled man as they crossed a bridge in search of food and help.
Four other people were wounded in the shootings on the Danziger Bridge on Sept. 4, 2005, just days after the hurricane hit and the levees failed.
The defendants were convicted on 25 counts, including federal civil rights violations in connection with the two deaths, for the violence and the coverup that began on the bridge in eastern New Orleans.
"The officers convicted today abused their power and violated the public's trust during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, exacerbating one of the most devastating times for the people of New Orleans," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said. "I am hopeful today's verdict brings justice for the victims and their family members, helps to heal the community and contributes to the restoration of public trust in the New Orleans Police Department."
In a grisly account that was backed up in nearly every respect, prosecutors said that four of the defendants — Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius, Officer Anthony Villavaso and former Officer Robert Faulcon — had raced to the bridge in a Budget rental truck that morning, responding to a distress call from another officer.
There they poured out of the truck and opened fire, without pausing or giving a warning, on members of the Bartholomew family, who were walking to a grocery store to find food in the largely abandoned city. James Brissette, 17, a friend of the family, was killed, and four others were gravely wounded by the police, who continued to fire as the Bartholomews scrambled for safety.
Several of the officers then chased Ronald and Lance Madison, two brothers stranded in the city, to the other side of the bridge, where Faulcon shot Ronald, 40, a mentally disabled man, in the back. Bowen was convicted of stomping Ronald Madison on the back as he lay dying.
No guns were recovered at the scene, and witnesses — both police officers and citizens — testified during the trial that the victims were unarmed.
The coverup began immediately, prosecutors said, and the jury found all of the officers, as well as retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, guilty of obstructing justice, fabricating witnesses, lying to federal investigators or planting a firearm at the scene to bolster a made-up story.
The jury stopped short of considering the killing of Madison to be murder in connection with a firearms charge. Such a finding would have affected the sentencing range, although four of the defendants are nevertheless faced with potential life sentences. Kaufman is facing up to 120 years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 14.
On the insistence of Judge Kurt Englehardt, the courtroom was nearly silent as he read guilty pronouncement after guilty pronouncement, and it remained so as the overwhelming nature of the verdict became clear.
Outside the courthouse, Bobbi Bernstein, a deputy chief of the Justice Department's civil rights division and the hard-charging leader of the prosecution, was in tears as she hugged Lance Madison, who was arrested during the coverup of the shooting that left his brother dead.
"I am thankful to have some closure after six long years of struggling for justice," Lance Madison said quietly, reading from a statement.
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."
Faulcon, the only defendant to testify, said he was "paralyzed with fear" when he shot and killed Madison, as he chased him and his brother, Lance Madison. Faulcon didn't dispute that he shot an unarmed man in the back, but he testified that he had believed Ronald Madison was armed and posed a threat.
Jim Letten, the U.S. attorney for Louisiana's Eastern District, said it is in situations like the anarchy after Hurricane Katrina, when it is most crucial that the police can be depended upon to protect citizens.
"Who can we count on when our society is threatened?" he asked. "If we can't depend on them, who can we depend on?"
Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.