Roland Bourgeois mug

Roland Bourgeois, via mug

A federal judge handed a 10-year prison sentence Thursday to a white man who admitted that he shot three black men in a racist attack during Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, ending the last open case involving civil rights abuses in New Orleans immediately following the 2005 storm.

Roland Bourgeois, 56, received his punishment four months after he struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to a hate crime and to illegally using a weapon.

The deal meant U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon would sentence him to between five and 10 years in prison, and she opted for the top of that range.

Bourgeois was one of several people accused of unjustifiably using force against others after New Orleans’ levees failed during Katrina, flooding most of the city. He ultimately acknowledged that he fired a shotgun at and wounded three men evacuating through Algiers Point three days after Katrina’s landfall.

The federal government prosecuted the cases of Bourgeois and the others after local authorities took no action.

The other cases involved the police killings of James Brissette and Ronald Madison on the Danziger Bridge, of Henry Glover in Algiers and of Danny Brumfield outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Each resulted in at least one conviction.

Though Bourgeois wasn’t a police officer, his race and that of his victims attracted investigations from journalist A.C. Thompson and later the feds.

Bourgeois' attorney, Valerie Welz Jusselin, pushed for a short sentence Thursday by arguing that even police officers at one point believed they had license to shoot looters on sight in Katrina's aftermath. The argument appeared to be a reference to then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco's warning that if necessary the National Guard would kill anyone who was looting damaged homes and businesses. 

But prosecutor Mary Hahn countered that there was overwhelming evidence suggesting Bourgeois' actions were premeditated and primarily driven by the victims' race. 

Bourgeois conceded that he and other Algiers Point residents formed a vigilante neighborhood watch and vowed to shoot any outsiders who crossed their path because “(n-words)” were “tearing up” New Orleans. 

Many of the widespread reports of break-ins across the city at the time later turned out to be unfounded. 

In any event, Bourgeois helped others use fallen trees to barricade streets near his and his neighbors’ homes on Vallette Street. He also grabbed a shotgun and gave a pistol to his son, then 15.

Eventually, Bourgeois encountered three men walking through Algiers Point to reach a ferry landing that authorities had turned into an evacuation point. When the men crossed one of the makeshift barricades, Bourgeois directed two shotgun blasts at them.

One man, Donnell Herrington, was hit in his neck and back. Two others were struck in their arms, legs and backs.

Bourgeois bragged that he “got one” and threatened to “kill that (n-word)” if he learned that the victim had survived. He promised a neighbor that he would shoot anything “coming up this street darker than a brown paper bag.” He also displayed a bloodied baseball cap that fell off Herrington’s head during the attack as if it were a trophy, according to documents that Bourgeois signed when he pleaded guilty on Oct. 17.

Concerns over Bourgeois’ physical and mental health led to more than a dozen delays in his case after he was initially charged in 2010, though details from his medical records have largely been kept confidential.

Lemmon in 2014 ruled that Bourgeois was physically unable to endure a trial. Yet in 2017 a Tulane University psychiatrist determined that Bourgeois — who was out on bail — had regained the ability to withstand a trial. He was rearrested, charged with an undisclosed bail violation and ordered to undergo another medical evaluation.

Despite earlier concerns over his physical and mental health, an Algiers white man charged with shooting at a group of black men in a racist attack a few days after Hurricane Katrina will stand trial in the fall, a federal judge has decided.

The ruling this month from U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon came nearly four years after she had indefinitely postponed the trial of Roland Bourgeois Jr., now 55.

Lemmon reviewed the results of that evaluation and ordered Bourgeois to stand trial Nov. 26. Bourgeois soon switched his plea to guilty, admitting he unjustifiably used a shotgun to deprive the victims of their right to use a public street based on their race.

He was brought in and out of Lemmon's courtroom Thursday in a wheelchair. He said little beyond providing short answers to routine questions. 

Bourgeois’ decision to plead guilty spared both sides what likely would have been an emotionally charged trial. He will receive credit for the time he has already spent behind bars. 

None of his victims spoke at his sentencing. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.