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First days of Danziger testimony shed light on nightmarish incident

6th July 2011   ·   0 Comments

The first four days of testimony in the Danziger Bridge shooting case gave jurors and the public a glimpse into the horrific incident that took place on the eastern New Orleans bridge just days after Hurricane Katrina.

Among those who testified over the first four days were shooting victims, an officer whose radio call sent cops to the bridge and several NOPD officers who have already entered guilty pleas and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

New Orleans police officers decided to “shoot first and ask questions later” when they gunned down two unarmed people and wounded four others on a bridge in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, a federal prosecutor said Monday during opening statements for a trial spotlighting one of the epic storm’s most notorious episodes.

The jury heard a vastly different account of the encounter on the Danziger Bridge from lawyers for five current or former officers charged in the deadly shootings. Defense attorneys said their clients feared for their lives and were justified in using deadly force.

“They stayed,” said Paul Fleming, a lawyer for former officer Robert Faulcon. “They didn’t desert. They didn’t go work other jobs. They stayed and did the best they could.”

Justice Department attorney Bob­bi Bernstein said police plotted to plant a gun, fabricate witnesses and falsify reports to cover up “atrocities” and tried to use Katrina’s chaotic conditions as an excuse for gaps in their investigation.

“They lied because they knew they committed a crime,” Bern­stein said. “They lied because they knew police officers were not allowed to shoot first and ask questions later.”

Faulcon, Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen and Officer Anthony Villavaso are charged in the shootings, which killed 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, who was severely mentally disabled. Retired Sgts. Arthur Kaufman and Gerard Dugue are charged in the alleged cover-up, but Dugue will be tried separately from the other five who were indicted last year on federal civil rights charges.

Five other former officers already have pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up to make the shootings appear justified. They are cooperating with the government and are expected to testify during the trial, which could last up to eight weeks.

The shootings broke out on the morning of Sept. 4, 2005, less than a week after the storm’s landfall. A group of police officers working out of a makeshift station piled into a Budget rental truck and drove to the bridge after hearing a radio call that other officers had taken fire.

Bernstein said Brissette was walking on the east side of the bridge with a friend, Jose Holmes, and several of Holmes’ relatives, when the officers pulled up in the truck and started firing at them, sending them scrambling for cover behind a concrete barrier. Holmes was lying wounded on the ground when Bowen walked up, pointed a gun at his stomach and fired a shot, according to the prosecutor.

“Jose clenched his stomach, and he reminded himself to breathe. And then Jose began to pray,” Bernstein said.

Holmes survived, but Brissette died on the east side of the bridge. On the west side, Faulcon allegedly shot Madison in the back with a shotgun as he and his brother, Lance Madison, were running away from the gunfire. Ronald Madison was lying on the ground when Bowen walked over and asked a fellow officer, “Is that one of them?” before he repeatedly stomped on the dying man, Bernstein said.

“Those words will tell you why he did what he did,” Bernstein said.

The officers have claimed they opened fire only after being shot at. They point to testimony less than a month after the shootings by Lance Madison, who said a group of teenagers started firing at him and his brother before they encountered police.

Fleming said the officers acted reasonably under dangerous circumstances, believing other officers already had been shot on the bridge before they arrived.

“Two officers dead or dying was what these officers had in their minds when they raced out there,” Fleming said.

Bernstein said the officers’ accounts of their actions, which they gave in taped interviews with police investigators, are contradicted by grainy footage shot by an NBC cameraman who was filming the incident.

“That tape is going to be an important piece of evidence for you,” she told jurors.

Police recovered no guns from the bridge that day, but Kaufman allegedly retrieved a gun from his garage and turned it in to the department’s evidence room six weeks after the shootings, trying to pass it off as a gun found at the scene. Bernstein described the cover-up as “ridiculously sloppy.”

“They were cavalier because they didn’t think they had to bother dotting any i’s or crossing any t’s,” she said.

Former NOPD Lt. Michael Lohman spent a grueling day first walking the prosecution through his versions of the events on the Danziger Bridge that left two citizens shot dead and four wounded, and then sparring with defense attorneys over his testimony, The Associated Press reported.

Lohman, the ranking officer on Sept. 4, 2005, when police killed 40-year-old Ronald Madison, a mentally disabled man, and 17-year-old James Brissette, defended his assertion that officers overreacted and then worked to cover up the shooting of unarmed people on the bridge as one defense attorney after another questioned his motives and his memory.

Remorse and the realization that the government had the truth about what happened on the bridge and the following cover-up prompted him to accept a deal to testify for the prosecution, Lohman testified.

The defense questioned that motivation.

Lohman faces a maximum of five years in prison when he is sentenced, a fact defense attorneys seized on during his cross-examination. Steve London, Kaufman’s lawyer, pointed out that Lohman was “looking at 25 to 30 years” before making his deal.

London also questioned Lohman on why he added Kaufman’s name to a false report, asking if he intended to make it look as if Kaufman had written it.

“I wasn’t trying to make it look like Kaufman wrote that,” Lohman said. “We were working on it together. I didn’t go off by myself and write this.”

Lohman said he went along with the cover-up because he did not want anyone to get into trouble, but London implied a different reason Kaufman’s name was on the documents.

“You actually hate Sgt. Kaufman, don’t you?” London asked.

“No,” Lohman responded. “We had disagreements, but I would not say it was a hate relationship.”

For the most part, Lohman remained poised during the long day of testimony, answering calmly, frequently addressing the jury directly. An exception was during cross examination by Paul Fleming who represents Faulcon. When asked what he evidently considered a repetitive question, Lohman snapped, “Pay attention, yes,” which earned him a dressing down from the judge.

Lohman said the gunfire had stopped by the time he arrived at the bridge. He testified that Bowen told him residents had fired at officers before they shot.

Bowen also allegedly told Lohman that Madison was seen reaching into his waistband before he was shot. No guns were recovered from Madison or Brissette, however.

Lohman said he assigned Kaufman to investigate the shootings but knew the goal of the probe would be to justify the officers’ actions, despite his misgivings.

“I felt things had gone wrong on the bridge that day and inappropriate actions had been taken,” Lohman said.

Lohman said he and Kaufman discussed a plan to plant a gun. Kaufman allegedly assured him the planted gun couldn’t be traced back to police or a crime scene. Prosecutors say Kaufman took a gun from his garage and turned it into the evidence room, trying to pass it off as a gun found at the scene.

Lohman said his commander, Capt. Robert Bardy, asked him general questions about the shootings, but did not press for details and Lohman said he never provided any.

“I guess you could say I was untruthful with him,” he said.

Officer Jennifer Dupree, the police officer whose frantic radio call led to a deadly encounter between police and residents on Danziger Bridge testified Wednesday that she heard gunfire and saw two armed men before she summoned help, The Associated Press reported.

Dupree, a government witness in the federal trial of five current or former officers charged in the fatal shootings and an alleged cover-up, said she heard the shots and saw two men with guns running away while she and other officers were on a high-rise bridge that runs parallel to the Danziger Bridge.

A group of officers who responded to Dupree’s “108” call — a code signaling an officer’s life is in danger — shot and killed two people and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge.

“Did you ever put it out on the radio that an officer was down?” Justice Department attorney Bobbi Bernstein asked.

“No,” Dupree responded.

Prosecutors say officers on the Danziger Bridge shot unarmed people who never posed a threat, but defense attorneys have claimed the officers only opened fire after they were shot at, possibly by people who weren’t shot or apprehended.

On the morning of Sept. 4, 2005, less than a week after Katrina’s landfall, Dupree and other officers were driving east on the Interstate 10 high-rise bridge over the Industrial Canal when they saw a caravan of vehicles parked on the highway. A man wearing a St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office shirt flagged the officers down.

“Get down! They’re shooting at us!” the man yelled, according to Dupree.

Dupree testified that she heard several shots, got out of her vehicle, looked over the side of the bridge and saw four men, two of whom had guns. She said she ducked and heard a few more shots before her supervisor told her to call for help.

After making the radio call, Dupree said she saw the two men with guns — one wearing a red T-shirt and another wearing a black shirt and black backpack — running toward the Danziger Bridge. She said she didn’t fire at them because they were too far away and had their backs turned to her.

“They weren’t a threat to me,” she said.

From atop the high-rise bridge, she saw a rental truck pull up on the east side of the Danziger Bridge and heard a barrage of gunfire. She didn’t immediately realize the men getting out of the rental truck were officers responding to her call.

Prosecutors showed jurors excerpts of a grainy NBC news video shot by a cameraman from the high-rise bridge, showing Dupree running on the bridge as gunfire erupts on the other. At some point, another officer on the radio told her to “shut up” because “we have them.” Dupree recalled.

Prosecutors say former officer Robert Faulcon fatally shot 40-year-old Ronald Madison, a mentally disabled man, in the back on the west side of the bridge as he and his brother ran away from the gunfire on the east side of the bridge, where 17-year-old James Brissette had been shot and killed by police.

Lohman, who said he personally wrote a false report on the shooting, testified Wednesday that he never pressed the officers involved in the shooting to explain what happened on the bridge because they were intent on clearing everybody of wrongdoing.

Testifying Wednesday at the federal trial, Jose Holmes Jr. said he didn’t know police were shooting at him, a friend and several relatives as they tried to cross the Danziger Bridge in search of food less than a week after the devastating 2005 storm. Holmes, now 25, said the officers didn’t identify themselves or issue any warnings before they opened fire.

Holmes said he was lying down on his side behind the barrier when he was shot in his left arm. When a man leaned over the barrier and pointed the barrel of a gun at his stomach, Holmes said he looked away.

“I tried to brace myself for the shot, kind of tightened my stomach up,” he said. “Then he shot me twice. … I paced my breathing because I thought if I panicked, I might die.”

Holmes recalled praying to survive and thinking, “Man, they really want me dead.”

His friend, 17-year-old James Brissette, was shot and killed by police on the east side of the bridge. His aunt, Susan Bartho­lo­mew, lost her arm in the shooting. Holmes’ uncle and a cousin also were wounded. Police also shot and killed 40-year-old Ronald Madison, a mentally disabled man, on the west side of the bridge. Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius, Officer Anthony Villava­so and former officer Robert Faulcon are charged in the shootings. Retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shootings, is charged with covering up what happened.

Holmes said no one in his group was armed that morning.

“Did you see anyone shoot at the police that day?” Justice Depart­ment attorney Barbara Bern­stein asked.

“No, ma’am,” the soft-spoken, reed-thin Holmes responded.

Prosecutors say police plotted to plant a gun, fabricate witnesses and falsify reports to make the shootings appear justified.

Holmes, whose testimony resumed Thursday, was shot in the stomach, jaw, arm, abdomen and elbow. At the prosecution’s direction, he lifted his shirt and showed jurors his gruesome scars.

Holmes said a nurse who treated him in the hospital “kept insinuating that I was shooting at helicopters.” Unable to speak at the time, he said he merely shook his head, figuring she got that idea from police.

“But she still took really good care of you?” Bernstein asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

Gisevius’ attorney, Eric Hessler, asked Holmes if he recalled telling the FBI that the man who shot him in the stomach jumped over the barrier rather than leaned over. Prosecutors have said Bowen leaned over the barrier and fired shots at wounded people.

“What is the truth?” Hessler asked.

“What I remember is someone leaning over and shooting me in my stomach,” Holmes said.

“I tried to brace myself for the shot, kind of tightened my stomach up,” he said. “Then he shot me twice. … I paced my breathing because I thought if I panicked, I might die.”

Holmes recalled praying to survive and thinking, “Man, they really want me dead.”

His friend, 17-year-old James Brissette, was shot and killed by police on the east side of the bridge. His aunt, Susan Bartholo­mew, lost her arm in the shooting. Holmes’ uncle and a cousin also were wounded. Police also shot and killed 40-year-old Ronald Madison, a mentally disabled man, on the west side of the bridge.

Holmes said no one in his group was armed that morning.

Ignatius Hills told prosecutors last week that he didn’t feel like a hero when cheering supporters greeted him and six other New Orleans police officers outside the jail where they were booked in January 2007 on charges stemming from the Danziger Bridge shootings.

Hills, now a key witness in the Justice Department’s case against five other current or former officers charged in the Danziger Bridge shootings, testified Thursday that he had fired two shots at the back on a fleeing teenager because he was scared.

He also said he subsequently participated in a cover-up to clear him and other officers of wrongdoing.

Federal prosecutor Theodore Carter showed Hills a photograph of him walking past a sign that said, “Heroes,” as he and others of the so-called Danziger Seven surrendered in 2007 to face state charges of murder and attempted murder.

“Were you a hero?” Carter asked.

“No,” Hills said. “There wasn’t anything heroic about what transpired on the bridge that day.”

Prosecutors say police shot six unarmed people, killing two, and then embarked on a cover-up that included a plot to plant a gun, fabricate witnesses and falsify reports to make the shootings appear justified.

On the morning of Sept. 4, 2005, less than a week after Katrina’s landfall, Hills and other officers piled into a rental truck and drove to the bridge in response to an officer’s distress call.

“It was pretty much intense,” he said. “There wasn’t much, if any, talking.”

Hills said he was in the back of the moving truck when he heard a barrage of high-powered gunfire. When the truck stopped, Hills saw a teenage boy run past the truck, away from the gunfire on the bridge.

From the back of the truck, Hills said, he fired two shots at the boy’s back “out of fear,” but missed his target.

“Did this individual do anything to threaten you?” Carter asked. “No,” Hills said, adding that he knows he wasn’t justified to shoot at someone simply because he was afraid.

Hills said he waited until the gunfire died down before he got out. He saw five gunshot victims on the ground behind a concrete barrier. One of them, 17-year-old James Brisssette, was dead. Another victim, Susan Bartho­lomew, had a shattered arm amid the pooling blood.

“It was a pretty horrific scene,” he said.

Hills said Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, one of the officers on trial, overheard him asking whether any guns were found on the victims. Bowen said he kicked the guns off the bridge, Hills testified.

“Did you believe him?” Carter asked.

“Absolutely not,” Hills said.

Officer Taj Magee, who arrived after the shootings, testified Thursday that he was disappointed but suspicious when he searched for guns near the bridge and didn’t find any.

“After walking the scene and not finding anything, I kind of didn’t want to know (about the shootings) after that,” he said.

Prosecutors say retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who was as­signed to investigate the shootings, later retrieved a gun from his home and turned it into the evidence room, trying to pass it off as a gun recovered at the scene.

On the west side of the bridge, police fatally shot 40-year-old Ronald Madison, a mentally disabled man, in the back as he and his brother, Lance Madison, ran from the gunfire on the other side.

Lance Madison was arrested that day on eight counts of attempted murder of police officers, then released three weeks later without being indicted. Prosecutors say neither of the Madison brothers was armed.

“To arrest Lance Madison was very suspicious,” Hills told the court.

Hills said he later attended a meeting with Kaufman and other officers who fired on the bridge. Kaufman told them to “basically get your stories straight” before they gave taped interviews with police investigators, Hills said.

Hills said he lied in his taped statement when he claimed to see the teenage boy reach toward a shiny object in his waistband before he shot at him. Under cross-examination, however, Hills said Kaufman never told him what to say during his interview.

Eric Hessler, a lawyer for one of the officers on trial, asked Hills if he felt any pressure to change his story once he began cooperating with the Justice Department to give prosecutors more fodder to use against other officers.

“Not at all,” Hills said. “It’s real easy to tell the truth.”

The state charges against Hills and other Danziger Seven members were dismissed in 2008.

Hills is one of five former officers who have pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up. He faces up to eight years in prison when he’s sentenced.

The trial is scheduled to resume July 5. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt gave jurors Friday off. Monday is the Fourth of July holiday.

This article originally published in the July 4, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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