NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Five former police officers are scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday for their roles in deadly shootings of unarmed residents on a New Orleans bridge after Hurricane Katrina, a coda for a case that became a high-profile symbol of police brutality and residents’ suffering after the 2005 storm.
The Justice Department’s probe of the Danziger Bridge shootings became the centerpiece of its push to clean up the troubled police department. Revelations that officers shot unarmed people and tried to justify the shootings with a brazen cover-up stunned a city with a long history of police corruption.
Four of the five officers who were convicted at trial last year face decades in prison under sentencing guidelines. While U.S. District Judge Kurt 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.
Engelhardt is expected to hear several hours of arguments by prosecutors and defense attorneys and testimony by relatives of shooting victims and the officers before he hands down the sentences.
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 that 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.
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 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.
Police shot six people, killing two.
Prosecutors alleged that an organized cover-up followed, including made-up witnesses, falsified reports and a planted gun.
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 in advance of the sentencings.
Faulcon was convicted of fatally shooting Ronald Madison, but the jury decided his 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 that included a planted gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports. Five other former officers who pleaded guilty to participating in the cover-up and cooperated with federal investigators already are 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 were fired on March 27. Faulcon quit the force shortly after the storm. Kaufman retired before last year’s trial.