Five ex-New Orleans police officers pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges of shooting at six unarmed people, resulting in two fatalities, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2006. The officers bagged terms ranging between three and 12 years in prison. The sentences were far less than what was meted out in an earlier trial — that trial was truncated when a federal court judge revealed that there were “shocking breaches of prosecutorial ethics.”
As the Washington Post reports, the officers were convicted in 2011, but after jurors pronounced a verdict two years later, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt said federal prosecutors had erred in the case in a variety of ways, including making online comments about the ongoing case.
Four of the five officers have been incarcerated for six years; a fifth officer has been out on bond. The original sentencing proffered a minimum of six years and a maximum of 65 years imprisonment; the retrial whittled the sentencing to a maximum of 12 years.
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The second sentencing comes almost a decade after the infamous shooting at Danziger Bridge in New Orleans, which drew national ire and condemnation over how police officers responded to situations with deadly force. The scrutiny over the incident was overstated because it occurred after the chaos and carnage left behind by the devastating Hurricane Katrina.
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According to federal authorities, on September 4, 2005, four officers — Anthony Villavaso, Robert Gisevius, Kenneth Bowen, and Robert Faulcon — had fired upon an unarmed family on the east side of the Danziger bridge. Four people had been shot at, and 17-year-old James Brissette was killed. A few minutes later, the officers again shot and killed Robert Madison when they opened fire on him and his brother. According to a court affidavit, the officers were responding to a radio call from officers that they were under attack.
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The Justice Department said the four officers involved in the shooting on the bridge colluded with two other officers, Gerard Dugue and Arthur Kaufman, to cover up what had happened. Dugue, a retired sergeant, was tried separately; his case ended in a mistrial, and as of this writing, he is awaiting a new one. According to the office of the attorney, Gisevius, Faulcon, and Bowen each got 10 years in prison. Villavaso got seven years, and Kaufman, who was not involved in the shooting but helped cover it up, got three years.
Sherrell Johnson, who lost her son James Brissette, spoke about the sentences.
“I finally got what I wanted: Someone confessed, I did it.”
Eric Hessler, an attorney for Gisevius and former New Orleans police officer, said, against popular opinion, that the shortened prison sentences did not help the case in the long term.
“It deprived them of a right to a fair trial, not only on that first time, but any subsequent time.”
He said the officers wanted an end to the lengthy battle in court. He opined that with the guilty pleas all the officers entered, his client would be out of prison in two years.
“I would venture to say there’s a sense of relief that it’s over. But is it the right outcome? I’ll stop short and say it’s probably the best outcome.”
[Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Image]