NEW ORLEANS >> A case that became the centerpiece of the Justice Department’s push to clean up the troubled New Orleans Police Department was expected to close a chapter Wednesday with a federal judge sentencing five former police officers for their roles in deadly shootings of unarmed residents on a bridge in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.
U.S. District Kurt Engelhardt was to hear several hours of arguments by prosecutors and defense attorneys and testimony by relatives of shooting victims and the officers before sentencing the former officers.
Four of the five officers who were convicted at trial last year face decades in prison under sentencing guidelines. While Engelhardt isn’t bound by those guidelines, Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon were convicted of firearms charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences.
Arthur Kaufman, a retired sergeant who wasn’t charged in the shootings but was convicted of participating in a cover-up, faces significantly less prison time under the guidelines.
A total of 20 current or former New Orleans police officers have been charged in a series of Justice Department probes, most of which center on actions during the aftermath of the 2005 storm. Eleven of those officers were charged in the Danziger Bridge case, which stunned a city with a long history of police corruption.
Police shot six unarmed people, killing two, on the bridge as they responded to another officer’s distress call. Realizing it was a “bad shoot,” police immediately embarked on a brazen cover-up that included a planted gun, fabricated witnesses and bogus reports, according to prosecutors.
Defense attorneys are expected to ask the judge to deviate from the guidelines and show the officers leniency.
In a court filing last week, Bowen’s attorney asked for more time during the sentencing hearing for testimony about the grueling conditions officers endured in Katrina’s aftermath.
“He wants to present evidence of the rescue work that he and other officers in NOPD’s Seventh District performed in the week between Katrina and the Danziger incident, and of the physical and emotional toll which that work took,” wrote Bowen’s lawyer, Robin Schulberg.
Bowen’s witnesses would testify about “emotional trauma of having to leave some people behind,” the lawyer added.
“They would speak about mothers offering up their babies to passing rescuers who could not stop for fear that other people in the crowd would take their vehicles, about getting little sleep at night for fear of incursions,” Schulberg wrote.
Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, leading to the collapse of levees and flooding an estimated 80 percent of the city. New Orleans was plunged into chaos as residents who hadn’t evacuated were driven from their homes to whatever high places they could find.
On the morning of Sept. 4, one group was crossing the Danziger Bridge in the city’s Gentilly area when police received calls that shots were being fired and rushed to the span. Gunfire reports were common after Katrina and law enforcement and emergency responders were strained by the unprecedented disaster.
At the Danziger Bridge, the worst elements of the chaos came together as police fired on a group crossing the bridge to what they believed was safe haven.
Lance Madison, whose 40-year-old, mentally disabled brother, Ronald, was shot and killed on the bridge along with 17-year-old James Brissette, is expected to speak on behalf of his family during the sentencing hearing. 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.
An attorney for members of the families would not comment before the sentencings.
Faulcon was convicted of fatally shooting Ronald Madison, but the jury decided the killing didn’t amount to murder. Faulcon, Gisevius, Bowen and Villavaso were convicted in Brissette’s killing, but jurors didn’t hold any of them individually responsible for causing his death.
All five of the officers were convicted of participating in a cover-up. Five other former officers who pleaded guilty to participating in the cover-up and cooperated with federal investigators are already serving prison terms.
After the jury’s verdicts in August, Madison’s relatives said in a statement that they had waited six years to “find out what really happened on that bridge.” Madison’s sister, Jackie Madison Brown, read the statement, which also said that after an event like Katrina, “all citizens, no matter what color or what class, deserve protection.”
Wednesday’s sentencing won’t be the final chapter in the case. The convicted officers are expected to appeal, and Gerard Dugue, a retired sergeant, is scheduled to be retried in May on charges stemming from his alleged role in the cover-up.
Dugue’s first trial was cut short in January when Engelhardt declared a mistrial. He ruled Justice Department prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein may have unfairly influenced the jury by mentioning the name of a man who was beaten to death by a New Orleans police officer in a case unrelated to Dugue’s.
Bowen, Gisevius and Villavaso have been fired. Faulcon quit the force shortly after the storm. Kaufman retired before last year’s trial.