Danziger Bridge convictions overturned, ex-cops granted new trial over online slander

Danziger Bridge convictions overturned, ex-cops granted new trial over online slander
The five former New Orleans police officers convicted of the fatal shooting at Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing cover-up were granted a new trial after a judge ruled that prosecutors’ actions in the case were “grotesque.”

US District Judge Kurt Engelhardt’s Tuesday order grants a new trial to former police officers Kenneth Brown, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon, Anthony Villavaso, and Arthur Kaufman - the latter convicted of falsifying records in an attempt to cover up the actions of the other four officers.

Engelhardt issued a blistering 129-page ruling overturning their convictions because attorneys in the prosecutor’s office anonymously posted damning messages online about the defendants, thus denying them the right to a fair trial.  

On September 4, 2005, just days after Hurricane Katrina left much of New Orleans underwater or in disrepair, the four officers responded to a distress call from another officer at Danziger Bridge on the city’s east side. Upon arriving, the four cops allegedly jumped out of their vehicle and immediately began firing blind at the Bartholomews, an unarmed family walking through the abandoned area to a grocery store.

James Brisette, a 17-year-old friend of the family, was killed and four others were seriously wounded as the family scrambled for cover. The officers chased two brothers, Lance and Ronald Madison, who were traveling with the family, to one side of the bridge. Faulcon was convicted of shooting Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, in the back and Bowen was convicted of stomping on him as he lay on the ground mortally wounded.

A spent shell casing lies alongside the road on Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans, Louisiana November 10, 2005. (Reuters / Lucas Jackson)

The alleged cover-up began immediately afterwards, with Detective Kaufman assigned to investigate the crime before conspiring with the other defendants to concoct a story. Kaufman said the civilians shot at the approaching officers and they had no choice but to return fire. He was eventually convicted of lying to federal officers and planting a gun at the scene.

Now, Judge Engelhardt has granted the defendants a new trial because US Attorney Jim Letten’s office committed “unprecedented events and acts” that “has taken the court on a legal odyssey unlike any other.”

The policemen sought a new trial in 2012, citing prosecutorial misconduct involving attorneys from Letten’s office. The lawyers posted derogatory comments about defendants in various criminal trials, including the Danziger case, beneath articles published on New Orleans news websites.

Engelhardt called for a probe into the conduct of former New Orleans prosecutors Sal Perricone and Jan Mann, as well as a third Justice Department prosecutor who posted the disparaging comments online.

The messages called for guilty verdicts, personal attacks on the New Orleans Police Department, and requested that other commenters join in the vitriol. Using the handle 'legacyusa', Perricone called the police department “a collection of self-centered, self-promoting, insular, arrogant, overweening, prevaricating, libidinous fools…the entire agency should be re-engineered from the ground up.”

Engelhardt described the behavior as “bizarre and appalling.” The same judge presided over the initial trial and sentenced the officers to prison terms ranging from six to 65 years.

The government’s actions, and initial lack of candor and credibility thereafter, is like a scar tissue that will long evidence infidelity to the principles of ethics, professionalism, and basic fairness and common sense necessary to every criminal prosecution, wherever it should occur in this country,” Engelhardt declared Tuesday.

Two years ago, Attorney General Eric Holder said he hoped the guilty verdicts would bring a sense of closure to the victims and victims’ families.

The officers convicted today abused their power and violated the public’s trust during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, exacerbating one of the most devastating times for the people of New Orleans,” he said. “I am hopeful today’s verdict brings justice for the victims and their family members, helps to help the community and contributes to the restoration of public trust in the New Orleans Police Department.”

Following Tuesday’s ruling, the Department of Justice issued a more succinct statement: We are disappointed with the court’s ruling. We are reviewing the decision and considering our options."