Former officers of the New Orleans police force pleaded guilty Wednesday to the shootings of five unarmed citizens following Hurricane Katrina. The officers accepted a plea deal and received greatly reduced sentences for their crimes that took place on the Danziger Bridge more than a decade ago.
Four of the ex-cops have been behind bars since 2010, while the fifth was out on bond awaiting a retrial. The group was originally sentenced to serve anywhere from 65 to six years in prison. The plea bargain lessened the sentences to a range of 12 to 3 years.
The shooting occurred on Sept. 4, 2005, a few days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, causing extensive damage and flooding in New Orleans. Police fatally shot James Brissette, 17, and Ronald Madison 40, and also wounded four other civilians when they opened fire on the Danziger Bridge.
Brissette and his uncle’s family were in search of supplies and pushing a cart to cross the eastern end of the bridge when police drove up and started shooting. Leonard Bartholomew III, his wife Susan, daughter Lesha, and Brissette’s friend Jose Holmes were all seriously injured. Leonard Bartholomew IV,14, was the only one who escaped without injury. Brothers Lance and Ronald Madison were being pursued by police further up the bridge. Ronald was killed by a shotgun blast to the back, while Lance walked away unharmed. He was arrested and jailed for attempted murder of police officers, however. The charges were later dropped.
In an attempt to cover up their misconduct, the officers planted a gun, named fake witnesses and falsified reports, according to prosecutors. The officers claimed they were responding to a call of fellow officers down, but that report was never verified.
According to NOLA.com, the former officers were initially convicted in 2011, but U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt was forced to throw out the conviction due to “grotesque prosecutorial misconduct, which included two top deputies in former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s office posting anonymous comments under NOLA.com stories deriding the accused officers.”
The new plea deal between U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s office and the ex-cops helped close one of the darkest chapters in New Orleans’ police department history.
Per NOLA.com, former officer Robert Faulcon Jr. was sentenced to 12 years behind bars, formerly 65 years; ex-Sgt. Kenneth Bowen’s sentence was reduced from 40 years to 10 years; Sgt. Robert Gisevius also received 10 years, previously 40; Anthony Villavaso initially got 38 years, but was reduced to seven years; and Arthur Kaufman, who is now out on bond, received a three-year sentence, which was previously a six-year sentence. Gerard Dugue, a sixth former officer suspected of assisting in the cover up, was tried separately in 2012.
“This has been a terrible ordeal for our family, our friends, and our community,” said Lance Madison, brother of Ronald Madison, who was one of the men fatally shot. “We are glad this part is over with and that the N.O.P.D officers responsible for this terrible incident have finally admitted their guilt.”
In an effort to limit police misconduct and excessive force, the City of New Orleans has implemented an “early warning” system to identify abusive officers and created a Force Investigation Team to analyze police shootings and suspect deaths. There has also been a widespread push to require police officers to wear body cameras when working in the field.