Nearly 4,000 days have come and gone since Sept. 4, 2005, when a group of New Orleans police pulled onto the Danziger Bridge in a commandeered rental truck to investigate reports that an officer was under fire in the lawless aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a fateful moment, they sprayed bullets from their service and personal firearms into two groups of innocent people, killing two and wounding four, including a woman who lost her arm.
The case against those officers, which captured international attention, largely wrapped up last week, when five pleaded guilty, admitting to misconduct that was breathtaking even by the standards of New Orleans police scandals.
In the tortured, decadelong fight for justice, there have been few heroes.
Not the New Orleans Police Department, whose officers, in the moments after realizing they had made a tragic mistake, constructed an elaborate cover-up that included inventing witnesses and falsely charging an innocent man with attempted murder. Their cover-up began immediately — as if by instinct — and it kept the truth hidden for years.
Not the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office under Eddie Jordan, which fumbled the case.
Not the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Jim Letten, which took up the probe but polluted its prosecution when two key members of the staff made the bizarre and self-destructive choice to post anonymous comments online about the case.
Not U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, who complained about the long sentences he was forced to impose on the killer cops and later vacated the jury verdict, stretching the law to claim the commenting amounted to “grotesque prosecutorial misconduct.” His ruling stood up when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals deadlocked 7-7 on whether to overturn him — hardly a vote of confidence in his judgment.
And not the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, whose lawyers once were the truth-seeking heroes of the story, quietly building a case and cracking the code of silence in the Police Department. Now it is clear one of their own members played a small role in the online commenting, and Engelhardt asserted Wednesday that their cover-up of that mistake went as high as Thomas Perez, then the head of the division, now U.S. Labor Secretary. Engelhardt’s inquiries prompted the division to withdraw from the case, setting the stage for this week’s plea deal.
So, in the final analysis, the case began and ended with a cover-up.
The only folks who deserve admiration are the victims and their families, who waited out the judicial ordeal with great patience and dignity. With their gracious acquiescence, sentences that totaled nearly 200 years were reduced by three-quarters to secure the guilty pleas that would bring the case to a conclusion. Many of them were in the courtroom Wednesday as the plea deals were accepted.
Engelhardt needlessly cut the officers another break, bypassing the typical process of making a defendant sign a document attesting to the facts of the case and taking responsibility for his crimes. None of the officers could muster the decency to personally apologize to those whose lives have been disrupted for more than a decade and may never be patched together.
Those families, and victims James Brissette and Ronald Madison, deserved more from officers Kenneth Bowen, Robert Faulcon Jr., Robert Gisevius Jr., Arthur Kaufman and Anthony Villavaso.
So did the people of New Orleans, and hopefully, a comprehensive federal consent decree will help ensure that a city cursed by crime gets a police force it can trust.