In a dramatic act of delayed justice, a jury in New Orleans last night delivered guilty verdicts against five former and current officers of the city's police department stemming from the infamous Danziger Bridge shootings that came six days after Hurricane Katrina as well as the elaborate cover-up that followed.
While sentencing of the five will not come until December, the verdicts should help to lower the curtain on an episode that drew worldwide attention and shamed the whole city. They also delivered a marked success to federal prosecutors even though none of the defendants was charged with actual murder.
"This was a critical verdict. I cannot overstate the importance of this verdict. The power, the message it sends to the community, the healing power it has," US Attorney Jim Letten said emerging from the courthouse.
The high-stakes case was at the heart of a much wider and ongoing effort by the federal Justice Department under President Barack Obama to investigate and clean up the NOPD, which in the years since Katrina, and indeed before, was widely seen as polluted by corruption and brutality.
Nothing came to symbolise the darkness within the department, however, more than the Danziger shootings case, which began when a group of officers in a white rental van sped to the bridge that spans a canal just to the east of the city to respond to what they thought was gunfire from civilians. In fact, there had been none, but the officers nonetheless opened fire on pedestrians on the bridge the instant they piled out of the van.
The carnage that followed has been well documented. Among a family group cowering behind a concrete divider, one, James Brissette, 17, was shot dead, while others were severely wounded. One woman effectively had her arm blown off. Of two brothers trying to run away, meanwhile, one, Ronald Madison, was fatally shot in the back. It was established later that none of the victims had in fact been armed.
After a trial that lasted five weeks, the jury convicted former officer Robert Faulcon, Sgts Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, Officer Anthony Villavaso and retired Sgt Arthur Kaufman in the case. All but Kaufman were found guilty both of trying to cover up the killings as well as violating the civil rights of the victims in a way that resulted in death. The first four could face up to life in prison, experts said.
Kaufman, who was appointed to conduct the NOPD's own investigation into the shootings, was charged only for the cover-up. Testimony from officers who sought plea deals said it involved a planted gun (found by Kaufman in his own garage), phoney witnesses and meetings between officers to ensure everyone had their stories straight. As part of the cover-up, Lance Madison, the brother of Ronald, who was killed, was himself arrested and put in jail on false charges of firing the gun and attempting to kill police officers.
This case, coupled with the federal probe, has "decimated" the police department, Peter Scharf, a professor of criminology at Tulane University, warned last night, saying the NOPD has been "demonised" to the point of collapse. "The question is what happens next?" he asked in an interview. "How do you move from a smashed police department to a functional police department?"
Central to the trial was debate about whether the confusion left by Katrina meant the police action should be judged by different standards. "It is a time of disorder, chaos and lawlessness. That doesn't mean the rules change, but the perception changes," defence lawyer Paul Fleming said. But prosecutors argued otherwise. "They thought because of Katrina no one was watching," said Assistant US Attorney Theodore Carter. "They thought they could do what they wanted to do."
The mother of James Brissette, one of the two who died on the bridge, said she was relieved last night after "a long, hard six years" of campaigning for justice. She nonetheless expressed puzzlement that the men could not have been charged with murder. "How are you able to empty a shotgun in the person and it's not murder?" Sherrel Johnson asked.