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Court backs new trial for convicted Danzigercops

24th August 2015   ·   0 Comments

Five former NOPD officers found guilty of killing two unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans less than a week after Hurricane Katrina will get a new trial despite efforts by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to challenge a federal judge’s decision to grant the officers a new trial after an online posting scandal involving several top federal prosecutors.

A three-judge panel at the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal made its decision Tuesday in the 10-year-old case, upholding U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt’s decision to overturn the convictions and grant a new trial to the defendants in September 2013.

The officers were convicted in a racially polarizing case that claimed the lives of 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, a mentally disabled man, and left four others wounded. The case was one of several high-profile, post-Katrina shootings that led to a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report that said the NOPD was rife with corruption and abuse and a subsequent federal consent decree aimed at overhauling the police department.

The five convicted officers were Kenneth Bowen, Robert Faulcon, Robert Gisevius, Arthur Kaufman and Anthony Villavaso.

In his scathing, 129-page order two years ago., Judge Engelhardt wrote that various government tactics – most notably prosecutors posting inflammatory comments about the case – tainted the case.

The online posting scandal during which three prosecutors posted comments about active DOJ cases, ultimately cost the three federal prosecutors their jobs and led to the resignation of then U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, then the longest-serving U.S. attorney in the nation’s history.

The judges of the appeals court echoed Judge Engelhardt’s concerns, WWL reported.

“The reasons for granting a new trial are novel and extraordinary. No less than three high-ranking federal prosecutors are anonymous comments to newspaper articles about the case throughout its duration. The government makes no attempt to justify the prosecutors’ ethical lapses, which the court described as having created an ‘online 21st century carnival atmosphere,’” the opinion reads.

WWL reported that two of the three appeals court judges had signaled during a hearing in April that they would rule in favor of a new trial after expressing disdain for federal prosecutors’ involvement in the online commenting scandal that led to the departure of Letten and the trio of federal prosecutors and what they perceived to be a subsequent attempt by the government to cover up the actions.

“We’re not surprised by the ruling,” Tim Meche, the attorney for Anthony Villavaso, told WWL. “The extreme outrageousness of the government’s conduct merited this opinion. The court in the strongest terms condemns the prosecutors’ behavior.”

The six victims of the Danziger Bridge shootings were all Black. The four unarmed civilians wounded were 19-year-old Jose Holmes, his aunt Susan Bartholomew, his uncle Leonard Bartholomew III and a teenage cousin, Lesha Bartholomew.

Ronald Madison’s brother Lance was walking with him on the bridge, and when they heard the gunfire they began to run. The officers chased the brothers down and injured Ronald Madison, who was later fatally shot in the back as he tried to run away. Lance Madison was arrested and accused of firing at police.

The five ex-officers who were convicted received the following sentences: Bowen, 40 years; Faulcon, 65 years for firing a shotgun blast to the back of Ronald Madison; Robert Gisevius, 40 years; Kaufman, six years for his part in the cover-up; and Villavaso, 38 years.

They were convicted on a 27-count indictment charging them with civil rights, firearms, conspiracy and obstruction following a week-long trial in 2011. The shooting on the bridge happened on Sept. 4, 2005, just days after Hurricane Katrina struck.

“The public must have absolute trust and confidence in this process,” Engelhardt wrote in his decision to overturn the convictions. “Re-trying this case is a very small price to pay in order to protect the validity of the verdict in this case, the institutional integrity of this Court, and the criminal justice system as a whole.”

Steve London, Kaufman’s attorney, told WWL that he was happy about the decision but did not expect it to go unchallenged.

“The Court of Appeals got it right. The decision was 2 to 1, so I expect the government to appeal the ruling en banc,” he said. “The government could also take writs to the U.S. Supreme Court. I don’t expect a new trial to be held anytime soon.”

Dr. Romell Madison, the brother of Ronald and Lance Madison, said it was “an unjust decision. My family and I will still fight for justice.”

In the government’s appeal, Justice Department attorney Elizabeth Collery argued Engelhardt veered out of bounds with his “unorthodox investigation.”

She also stated that while acknowledging federal prosecutors Sal Perricone and Jan Mann “indeed committed misconduct” and that Justice Department attorney Karla Dobinski “exercised poor judgment,” none were part of the trial team and “there is no suggestion that the jury saw the comments they posted during trial.”

The original “Danziger 7” cops were indicted by then Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan. When the officers turned themselves in, they were greeted by hundreds of fellow cops and supporters, some of whom carried signs that read “Heroes.” The charges against the officers were later thrown out by Orleans Parish Judge Raymond Bigelow.

The Madison family then traveled to Washington, DC several times to meet with DOJ officials and ask the DOJ to file federal charges against the officers involved. Those pleas led to nearly two years of meetings coordinated by Community United for Change that brought together DOJ officials and members of the community who had been impacted by unconstitutional policing and excessive force.

When the convictions were overturned in 2013, a number of grassroots community organizations, including Community United for Change, accused the U.S. Attorney’s Office of purposely posting the online comments about several active DOJ cases in order to give the convicted NOPD officers an escape route, a legitimate basis for having their convictions overturned.

Reporting by WWL-TV anchor Karen Swensen contributed to this article.

This article originally published in the August 24, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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