TOPICS > Politics

New Orleans Officers Convicted in Killings: a Turning Point for a Healing City?

August 5, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Five current or former New Orleans police officers were convicted Friday in connection with a deadly shooting on Danziger Bridge in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. New York Times reporter Campbell Robertson discusses how the convictions are being viewed in a city and police department still grappling with storm aftermath.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to the new convictions in the continuing federal probe of police behavior after Hurricane Katrina. A jury found five current or former police officers guilty today in the deadly shootings on a New Orleans bridge.

Judy Woodruff has the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the chaos following the historic flooding from 2005′s Hurricane Katrina, another tragedy unfolded. One week after Katrina’s initial blow to New Orleans, police shot six unarmed people on the city’s Danziger Bridge after officers said they were responding to the distress call of another shooting.

Two of those six were killed: 17-year old James Brissette and a 40-year old mentally disabled man, Ronald Madison. Madison was killed when police chased him and his brother Lance, who was with him as they tried to find safe haven. Lance Madison was later arrested and accused of firing at police, according to prosecutors.

But today in federal court, a jury convicted a former police officer, a retired sergeant and three current members of the New Orleans Police Department, all on charges stemming from a cover-up. All but one were convicted of civil rights violations connected with the shootings as well.

James Brissette’s mother spoke of her loss after the verdict.

SHERREL JOHNSON, Mother of James Brissette: It took the twinkle out of my eye, the song out of my heart and blew out my candle. But it’s going to be all right because justice has been served.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Lance Madison, who lost his brother and nearly lost his freedom, expressed his thanks to the jury

LANCE MADISON, Brother of Ronald Madison: I am thankful for having some closure after six long years of struggling for justice. I am most grateful to my family, especially to my brother Romero (ph). Without the support of and hard work of my family, I might still be in prison for false charges, and the truth about what happened on the Danziger Bridge might never have known — been known.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The trial was a high-profile test of the Justice Department’s effort to clean up a police department marred by a reputation for 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 storm, which plunged the city into a state of lawlessness. Two cases have already gone to trial.

Jim Letten is a U.S. attorney for Louisiana’s Eastern District.

JIM LETTEN, U.S. Attorney: Today’s verdict by these jurors sends a powerful, a powerful, unmistakable message to public servants, to law enforcement officers, and to the citizens we serve, and indeed to the world.

That message is that public officials — and especially law enforcement officers — will be held accountable for their acts, and that any abuse of power, especially that power that violates the rights and the civil liberties of our citizens, will have serious consequences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sentencing is set for December 14.

And for more about the case and the inquiry into the New Orleans Police Department, Campbell Robertson has been covering this trial, including today’s verdict, for The New York Times. And he joins us now from New Orleans.

Campbell Robertson, thank you for being with us.

What would you add to the account we just shared about the prosecution’s case? You wrote that it was a grisly account. I believe that was your term, your word.

 CAMPBELL ROBERTSON, The New York Times: Well, this account started coming out over some time.

There have been five police officers who have pled guilty, some of whom were actually firing at the bridge that day, other ones who were involved in the cover-up. One of them described it as a massacre.

And, so, as those guilty pleas were coming out, the — while everyone knew this was — everyone had suspected that this was a very bad scene, the grisliness of it began to come out one at a time with each of those guilty pleas.

And so when the prosecutors finally put it all together, it was a pretty harrowing account of what happened that day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it’s — there were accounts of the police tampering with the evidence, planting a gun. Tell us a little about that part of the prosecution’s case.

CAMPBELL ROBERTSON: Well, it’s funny.

The cover-up, the prosecutors say the cover-up began immediately at the bridge. There were officers who said, we have to make sure that this doesn’t appear as a massacre.

And they described it as — even officers who participated and later pleaded guilty described it as a pretty inept and incompetent cover-up, where people were trying to get stories straight and making up names whole cloth of witnesses. And, at one point, one of the defendants who was convicted today, former retired Sergeant Kaufman, came up with a gun that he referred to other officers as a “ham sandwich” — quote, unquote — and dropped it at the scene, because obviously it was crucial for investigators to show that this — citizens were actually firing on the police and so it was a justifiable shooting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What was the main thread of the defense that the police officers put forward?

CAMPBELL ROBERTSON: Well, there were little elements here and there where certain defense attorneys tried to argue that maybe the — using sort of snippets of initial testimony, that maybe the citizens were armed or maybe there were other shooters in other areas.

But the fundamental defense, which is the same one they used last year in a Katrina-related police killing trial, was that it was a chaotic time, and that we can’t judge the officers who stayed, and that they should be considered — they should be lauded for staying, and that they came into a scene that they thought was fraught with danger, they been told there were shooters, and so we shouldn’t criminalize their instincts.

Now, the prosecution, Jim Letten, said today that that’s exactly the opposite, that, in chaotic instances after Katrina, that’s exactly when you need the police to act — to be the most trustworthy and dependable, and that obviously there are rules that you need to assess threats before firing.

And this firing lasted for something like 50 seconds. So, I think the jury felt that the argument that — that this was just chaos and that we should look upon — look upon that with some mitigating circumstances, given the length of the shooting and the persistence, it was hard to buy that, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Campbell Robertson, what was the atmosphere in the courtroom during the trial and then today when the verdicts were read?

CAMPBELL ROBERTSON: Well, today, when the verdicts were read — the judge is a very no-nonsense judge, and he repeatedly insisted that the — that there be no outbreaks, there be no noise, there be complete silence in the courtroom, which made for this kind of eerie scene, where as he read out — these are 25 counts, some of them with multiple guilty pronouncements, many of them.

As this sort of litany of guilties came out, it was completely quiet. And after he finished, he spoke to the jury for a few minutes about their service. And the families of the defendants were sort of weeping quietly. And there was no outburst on the part of the victims, but they went out afterwards and they were somewhat subdued as well.

I think the whole thing was kind of overwhelming, frankly. It’s been six years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

Have you had a chance to get a sense of how the city of New Orleans, the people of New Orleans have reacted to this or been reacting to the trial?

CAMPBELL ROBERTSON: Well, the mayor put out a statement today. I mean, I do think it’s interesting that this isn’t talked about by even the victims as an isolated incident.

It’s really put into the context of the city over the last six years, which almost everything is down here, because the city, you know, is almost one big narrative. And with the struggles that the police department has had and struggles that the city has had with their own police department, I think this is seen as hopefully a turning point.

There’s a lot to come and there’s a lot of skepticism. But even some of the — even Lance Madison talked about that maybe this is a turning point for the community and can bring some healing. I guess we will see on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the Justice Department is pursuing these other cases, meanwhile.

CAMPBELL ROBERTSON: True. They have criminal cases that are ongoing. They also have a wide-ranging civil case, sort of like what they did with the LAPD in the ’90s, which would end — they’re in negotiations with the city right now for a consent decree, which would mandate some pretty wide-ranging reforms.

I mean, senior justice officials say that they have never seen anything quite as bad as the New Orleans Police Department when they found it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So one can’t look at this as an isolated case, an isolated trial?

CAMPBELL ROBERTSON: This is probably the most high-profile of the trials, but it is by no means isolated, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we’re going to leave it there.

Campbell Robertson with The New York Times, joining us from New Orleans, thank you very much.

CAMPBELL ROBERTSON: Thank you.