Five New Orleans police officers have been found guilty of covering up shootings on the Danziger Bridge that killed two men in the days following Hurricane Katrina. However, in this case, the cover-up was considered worse than the crime: The jury did not find the officers guilty of murder.
The jury found Friday that the Sept. 4, 2005, deaths resulted from police violating the victims’ civil rights but without “murderous intent.” Four of the officers — Robert Faulcon, Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, and Anthony Villavaso — were found guilty of “depriving citizens of their rights” with the use of firearms. They were also convicted of various charges related to the cover-up, such as obstruction of justice, false prosecution, fabricating witnesses, and misleading federal investigators. A fifth officer, retired homicide Detective Arthur Kaufman, was found guilty of 10 counts of covering up the investigation.
As a result of the convictions, all defendants could spend the rest of their lives in prison depending on the Dec. 14 sentencing hearing. However, a murder conviction would have guaranteed life sentences without parole. This wasn’t the first attempt to convict the officers: The state had tried to bring charges in 2008, but the indictments were dropped because of errors by the district attorney’s office. After that, the federal government built its case. Although the victims’ families have some closure now that the trial has ended, the failure to convict the officers of murder has left them desiring more justice.
Victim James Brissette Jr.’s mother, Sherrel Johnson, told reporters, “I want the word ‘murder’ behind their name, attached to their name. I’m not satisfied with this, and I’m not going to be satisfied with this.”
Brissette, a 17-year-old who was about to begin his senior year of high school, stayed in New Orleans during Katrina with his family. His mother said he went to examine the extent of the devastation with some friends when he was shot and killed on the bridge. Four other members of his family were seriously wounded in the incident.
Police also killed Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old black man with mental disabilities who lived at home with his mother. According to Ronald’s brother Lance, the brothers were crossing the bridge and started running when teenagers opened fire behind them. Soon, a dozen police officers responding to the report of gunshots arrived and began shooting at the people on the bridge. Witnesses said none of the civilians had guns and the officers did not give warning before opening fire. Officer Faulcon, who later testified he was filled with “indescribable fear” during the incident, shot Ronald. Officer Michael Hunter testified that another police officer, later found to be Bowen, also kicked Madison as hard as he could while he was dying on the ground.
According to the autopsy, Madison’s body had five gunshot wounds — and all of them entered through the back. After the shooting, police did not find any weapon on or near Madison’s body. Likewise, his brother, Lance, did not have any weapons on him — evidence that did not prevent officers from taking him into custody and holding him in jail for six months without prosecution. Neither of the brothers had a criminal record.
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said of Friday’s convictions, “Today’s verdict sends a powerful, unmistakable message. … The citizens of this country will not, should not, and we intend that they will never have to fear the individuals who are called upon to protect them.” Perhaps the true message is that covering up a murder is worse than actually committing one — especially when the shooters are police officers.