NEW ORLEANS — Five former police officers were sentenced to lengthy prison terms Wednesday for the shootings of six unarmed residents, two of whom died, in the days after Hurricane Katrina and for orchestrating a wide-ranging coverup afterward.
The four officers who were directly involved in the shootings were sentenced to terms ranging from 38 to 65 years. A police sergeant who was overseeing an investigation into the shootings but led the efforts to hide and distort what happened, was sentenced to six years.
While the sentences were long, they were not nearly as long as federal prosecutors were seeking — in some cases less than a third of the sentence they recommended — and for the most part were either the mandatory minimum or several years more than the minimum.
Before delivering the sentences, U.S. Judge Kurt D. Englehardt gave a lengthy speech condemning the concept of mandatory minimum sentences and disparaging the case put together by federal prosecutors. Englehardt said in particular that he was "astonished" and "deeply troubled" by the plea deals with four cooperating witnesses at the heart of the case.
Afterward, prosecutors defended their actions. They said the case was cold when the Justice Department picked it up, after a mishandled prosecution by the local district attorney and the dismissal of all charges by a judge in 2008.
"I've never seen an easy police case in my life," said Tom Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, who called it the most significant police misconduct prosecution since the Rodney King case. "I have in particular observed in the New Orleans Police Department that the code of silence was seemingly impenetrable."
Jim Letten, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, called the plea deals "not only appropriate but necessary" for a successful prosecution.
The five former police officers were convicted in August on a range of counts including federal civil rights violations and lying to investigators.
On Sept. 4, 2005, as much of New Orleans still lay submerged in floodwaters, Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius, then sergeants, and Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon, then officers, jumped in a Budget rental truck and raced with other officers to the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans, responding to a distress call on the police radio.
As soon as they arrived, witnesses at the trial said, they began firing on members of the Bartholomew family, who were trying to find a grocery store. A 17-year-old family friend named James Brisette was killed, and four others were severely wounded.
The police then began to chase two brothers, Lance Madison and Ronald Madison, who was 40 years old and mentally disabled. Ronald Madison was shot in the back by Faulcon and then stomped on by Bowen as he lay dying.
A coverup began immediately and eventually grew to include madeup witnesses and a planted handgun. Sgt. Archie Kaufman was charged with overseeing much of the coverup.
Engelhardt expressed frustration that he was bound by mandatory minimum sentencing laws to imprison Bowen, Gisevius, Villavaso and 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.
"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.
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.
Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shootings, received six years in prison — a sentence below the federal guidelines. Kaufman was convicted of helping orchestrate the coverup.
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 61/2 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 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.
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 inquiries, most of which center on actions during the aftermath of Katrina.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.