Five former New Orleans police officers involved in a fatal shooting spree on the Danziger Bridge in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or in an audacious cover-up that followed, pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court in New Orleans, accepting steeply reduced prison terms to avoid a new trial almost three years after a judge threw out their earlier convictions.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt agreed to accept the deals and promptly sentenced the five men before a courtroom packed with the families of the officers and their victims.
After launching an investigation into the online postings of senior federal prosecutors in then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s office, Engelhardt in September 2013 found “grotesque prosecutorial misconduct” that he said warranted a new trial for the five men.
A federal appeals court upheld his ruling in August, and the full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused this year to reconsider it.
Negotiations between the government and attorneys for the five former officers heated up in recent weeks, sources familiar with the talks said, after the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division backed away from the case amid new pressure from Engelhardt over what he described Wednesday as “unsettling and unresolved” questions stemming from the online-commenting scandal.
The judge said an endorsement from the victims’ families weighed heavily in his decision to accept the plea deals and the shorter prison terms.
Originally sentenced to a 65-year prison term, former officer Robert Faulcon received 12 years under the new deal. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius accepted 10-year terms, down from 40 years apiece. Anthony Villavaso, who had been sentenced to 38 years, received seven under the deal and, according to his attorney, Timothy Meche, is now set to be released within weeks because of the time he has already served.
Former NOPD Sgt. Arthur “Archie” Kaufman, who was accused of orchestrating a cover-up of the Sept. 4, 2005, episode that left 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison dead and four others injured, saw his sentence halved from six to three years.
Kaufman, who spent about 16 months in jail, has remained free recently pending a new trial. Engelhardt ordered him to report to prison by June 27, pending consideration of Kaufman’s request to do the remainder of his time on home confinement due to health issues.
The new sentences are not significantly different from those given to the five cops who opted to cooperate with the government earlier in the case and testify against their colleagues. Those officers received sentences ranging from two years to eight years.
The plea deals bring an end to a criminal prosecution that has stretched on for years over a one-minute burst of violence and a much longer cover-up that came to symbolize the chaos and government negligence that trailed Katrina, leaving a lasting stain on the New Orleans Police Department.
Each of the five former cops, four of them in jail garb, repeated “Yes, your honor” in affirming their guilty pleas Wednesday. Although most criminal defendants in federal court sign “factual bases” spelling out their admissions, Engelhardt said the transcript of the 2011 trial of the five men would suffice — even though their convictions in that trial were set aside.
Bowen, Faulcon, Gisevius and Villavoso each pleaded guilty to depriving the innocent shooting victims of their rights under color of law, obstruction of justice and a conspiracy to obstruct justice. They each faced a maximum life prison term.
Kaufman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and falsifying evidence to obstruct justice.
Eric Hessler, the attorney for Gisevius, turned to the family of both deceased victims and offered condolences on his client’s behalf.
“Everybody who was on that bridge that day suffered, none so much as your families,” he said. “Mr. Gisevius would like to extend his sympathies for your losses.”
William Gibbens, Kaufman’s attorney, apologized “to the victims and their families for all the losses they suffered.”
Kaufman declined to comment to a reporter after the hearing, saying, “I have nothing. It’s like a blank slate in my head.”
The pleas came 11 years after a band of cops rolled up to the bridge in a commandeered U-Haul truck, responding to a report of “officers down” and a loose description of a suspect. They proceeded to fire a barrage of bullets from their service revolvers and personal firearms at a group of fleeing people, then falsely attested that those people were armed, the jury heard at their 2011 trial.
Kaufman, then a homicide detective, was accused of stage-managing a group whitewash, including failure to collect any evidence, the planting of a “clean” gun and the creation of a false report that included invented testimony from made-up witnesses supporting the idea that Lance Madison, one of the civilians on the bridge, had tossed a gun into the canal. Madison, whose brother was slain in the gunfire, was accused of trying to kill the officers.
Several other officers pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution about the firing spree.
“I’m just thankful this is over. I’m a little disappointed in the short time they received,” Lance Madison said shortly after the nearly two-hour hearing.
Later, at a news conference at U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s office, Madison added: “Still today, almost 11 years later, my family and I continue to suffer. And while these police officers will still have time to serve in prison, it will never be enough for what they did.”
Sherrel Johnson, victim James Brissette’s mother, called it “the first day of the rest of my life. I finally got what I wanted: someone to confess, ‘I did it.’ ”
Polite noted that the plea deals clear the way for the victims’ family members to move forward with civil litigation over the shootings.
Engelhardt also noted that litigation while saying he would suspend an order for restitution against the five officers pending the outcome of the civil lawsuits.
The main remaining loose end in the Danziger saga is the case pending against former NOPD Sgt. Gerard Dugue, who was charged with abetting the cover-up and was tried separately from the other officers in 2012.
Engelhardt called a mistrial in that case after a prosecutor mentioned an unrelated case that was supposed to be off-limits, and the government has not sought to retry the case.
Attempts to reach Dugue’s lawyer, Michael Hill, on Wednesday were unsuccessful. Polite’s office declined to comment on the status of that case.
Preparations for Wednesday’s hearing took place with an unusual amount of secrecy. Not until Wednesday morning were documents unsealed in the court record showing that the rearraignment and sentencing would take place, and those indicated that it would happen on April 14.
Prior to sentencing the five officers, Engelhardt returned to the online commenting scandal, in which two of Letten’s top deputies — Sal Perricone and Jan Mann — were caught posting intemperate, anonymous comments about pending federal prosecutions beneath stories at nola.com.
Both prosecutors, along with Letten, would be ushered from the office over the scandal.
But Engelhardt cast his ire instead at Assistant U.S. Attorney Bobbi Bernstein, who led the prosecution of the Danziger cops, and two former leaders of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
Citing sealed affidavits, the judge said Bernstein had gone to her superiors with knowledge that a third DOJ lawyer, Karla Dobinski, had posted her own comments online. Engelhardt said former senior DOJ staffers Roy Austin and Thomas Perez directed Bernstein not to alert the judge but to leave it to the special prosecutor who had been assigned to root out the scandal, John Horn.
That was several months before Engelhardt wheedled Dobinski’s name from Horn.
“The court demanded specifics and finally learned about (Dobinski) upon pressing the issue,” Engelhardt said.
Perez is now the U.S. secretary of labor, and Austin works in the White House. Neither could be reached late Wednesday.
Last month, Engelhardt ordered Horn and another special prosecutor to verify when they first knew about Dobinski’s online postings, and also to say who in the Justice Department had reviewed a report they submitted to the judge three years ago.
The judge’s order prompted Bernstein and the Civil Rights Division to step away from the Danziger case a few weeks ago, speeding up plea negotiations, said Meche, Villavaso’s attorney.
Letten and Perricone both declined comment Wednesday.
Polite, speaking at the same spot where Letten announced his retirement in December 2012 amid a mushrooming scandal, acknowledged the damage the online posting scandal did to the reputation of the local U.S. Attorney’s Office and to the outcome of the Danziger case.
“While this is certainly an imperfect resolution, today’s proceeding ensures that these five defendants will be held accountable for their criminal actions,” Polite said. “For these families and these victims, this case was never about a particular jail sentence. This case was about one singular concept. It was about accountability. Nothing more, and most certainly nothing less.”