Five Officers Plead Guilty in Post-Katrina Shootings

April 20, 2016
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Susan Bartholomew, whose arm was shot off by New Orleans police on the Danziger Bridge, outside federal court after sentences were handed down in the case on April 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Five New Orleans police officers pleaded guilty today to reduced charges in the shootings of six civilians in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and their efforts to cover up the crimes.

The pleas come after more than a decade of legal proceedings, in which the officers were convicted for their roles in the killings of two civilians and wounding of four others, only to have the convictions overturned after a judge found the prosecutors had engaged in ethical misconduct. In August, the men were granted a new trial, but there had been little development since then.

The former officers involved in the shooting — Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon, Anthony Villavaso — pleaded guilty to the crimes, and were sentenced to serve between 7-12 years in prison, in accordance with the agreement. With credit for time served, they will likely only serve about three or four more years each.

Their original sentences were four to five times longer.

Arthur Kaufman, who was involved only in the cover up but had not yet served any part of his original sentence, will serve three years, down from six. The case against a sixth officer, Gerald Dugue, is separate and still pending.

The Danziger Bridge case, as it’s known, was the most high-profile of six questionable police shootings that FRONTLINE, ProPublica and the New Orleans Times-Picayune have been investigating since 2010.

The details of the case, as outlined by the Justice Department, are troubling.

In 2005, police responded to a call that officers were under fire on the Danziger Bridge. When they arrived, they turned their assault rifles and a shotgun on the Bartholomew family, who were unarmed and searching for food and medicine.

The bullets tore the right arm off of Susan Bartholomew, then 38, and hit Leonard, 44, in the leg and back of the head. Their daughter, Lesha, 17, was shot in the leg and stomach. The couple’s nephew, 19-year-old Jose Holmes, was shot in the face, neck, both arms, hand and stomach. Their son, who was 14, escaped unharmed.

James Brissette, a family friend, died from his wounds, as did Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man with severe mental and physical disabilities who was shot in the back with a rifle as he fled.

After the shootings, the officers immediately began to cover up what they had done, the Justice Department said. They arrested Madison’s brother, Lance, and charged him with attempting to kill police officers. They submitted shell casings as evidence that hadn’t been found at the scene, and rehearsed their false statements together. The supervising officer, Kaufman, falsely testified that Lance had fired on his officers. He also fabricated witness statements to back up the officers’ accounts.

The four officers who fired the shots  — Bowen, Gisevius, Faulcon and Villavaso — were ultimately convicted for the shootings and resulting cover up. Kaufman, a supervisor, was sentenced for helping them hide what they had done. Five others pleaded guilty before the trial for participating in the conspiracy to cover up the crime.

The convictions were overturned after Judge Kurt Engelhardt determined that some of the prosecutors had commented on the case on NOLA.com, the Times-Picayune site, before and during the trial, calling for guilty verdicts and picking apart the officers’ defense. At the time, Engelhardt called their behavior “bizarre and appalling.”

As part of the reduced sentences, Engelhardt said the men must also attend a life skills program and pay fines of about $100 per count to the court, according to reports from NOLA.com’s Emily Lane, who was in the courtroom at the time. Kaufman must also perform 150 hours of community service.

The five still may face stiff monetary penalties, as civil suits against them are still pending.

In the courtroom today, attorneys for Gisevius and Kaufman addressed the victims’ families, apologizing for their losses, Lane reported. The judge said the survivors and the victims’ families consented to the plea agreements.

“While an imperfect resolution, today’s proceeding ensures that these defendants are held accountable for their criminal actions,” said Kenneth Polite Jr., the current U.S. attorney, in a statement.

The pleas comes as the New Orleans Police Department is struggling to overhaul its force in accordance with a wide-ranging reform agreement imposed by the federal government in 2012. The agreement, known as a consent decree, is designed to address broader constitutional violations that federal officials found at the NOPD, including a pattern of bending the rules to combat crime and excessive uses of force.

Progress has been slow, according to the monitoring team tasked to oversee the department’s efforts. In the monitoring team’s most recent report, released in February, it noted that the NOPD had made “real, substantive progress in many areas,” including setting up a team dedicated to investigating officer uses of force.

But it also noted that the NOPD officers are still lacking “close and effective supervision,” noting that many supervisors don’t have the skill, training, or even the time to do this properly. It said the current police superintendent, Michael Harrison, was working to address the problem but that it remains a “significant concern” of the monitoring team.

This story has been updated.

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