Judge orders new trial for former cops convicted in Danziger Bridge case
23rd September 2013 · 0 Comments
A federal judge on Tuesday ordered a new trial for five former New Orleans police officers convicted of civil rights violations stemming from deadly shootings on an eastern New Orleans bridge less than a week after Hurricane Katrina.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled Tuesday that the “highly unusual, extensive and truly bizarre actions” of prosecutors warrant throwing out the officers’ convictions.
In a 129-page ruling, Engelhardt wrote that those comments, posted under pseudonyms, fueled a “21st-century carnival atmosphere” that tainted the ex-cops’ 2011 trial.
“This case started as one featuring allegations of brazen abuse of authority, violation of the law and corruption of the criminal justice system; unfortunately, though the focus has switched from the accused to the accusers, it has continued to be about those very issues,” he wrote. “After much reflection, the court cannot journey as far as it has in this case only to ironically accept grotesque prosecutorial misconduct in the end.”
In addition to former federal prosecutors Sal Perricone and Jan Mann, who both resigned amid an online posting scandal involving several active Justice Department cases, Judge Englehardt said federal prosecutor Karla Dobinski also posted comments about defendants on nola.com. He described Dobinski as the “taint team leader” and described her posts on nola.com as a “wanton, reckless course of action.”
Literally minutes before jury selection began in the Danziger Bridge case, Sal Perricone anonymously launched a missile at the defendants in the case as well as the NOPD’s top brass.
“NONE of these guys should had have [sic] ever been given a badge,” Perricone wrote, using the pseudonym “legacyusa.” “We should research how they got on the police department, who trained them, who supervised them and why were they ever been promoted. You put crap in—you get crap out!!!”
Engelhardt said the evidence he reviewed before deciding to grant defense attorneys’ request for a new trial “illustrates the diseased root that unfortunately casts an ineradicable taint on these convictions.”
The five officers were convicted of a combined 25 counts of civil rights violations and received prison terms ranging from six to 65 years for the September 4, 2005, shootings at the Danziger Bridge. They were accused of firing on an unarmed family and others who were struggling to survive the storm and subsequent levee breaks that flooded 80 percent of New Orleans.
Five other officers — Michael Lohman, Jeffery Lehrmann, Michael Hunter, Robert Barrios and Ignatis Hill — pleaded guilty on a variety of federal charges and agreed to cooperate with the U.S. Department of Justice as it continued its probe of the 2005 incident.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Theodore Carter said during the trial that police had no justification for shooting unarmed, defenseless people on the Danziger Bridge on Sept. 4, 2005, and then plotting to plant a gun, fabricate witnesses and falsify reports.
“They thought they could do what they wanted to do and there wouldn’t be any consequences,” Carter said of the defendants. “It was unreasonable for these officers to fire even one shot, let alone dozens.”
Responding to the officers’ claims that they were fired upon before using their firearms, Carter said, “This wasn’t a gunfight — this was carnage.”
“The only thing James Brissette pointed at these officers was his back,” Carter said, referring to the teen who was fatally wounded by former officer Ken Bowen.
During the trial, Susan Bartholomew, the shooting victim who lost her right arm, told jurors that she and her family were crossing the Danziger Bridge in search of food and other supplies when they were hit with a barrage of bullets by NOPD officers.
“The police just kept shooting and I just kept feeling myself being hit,” Bartholomew said. “I prayed. I just called on the Lord. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Today’s verdict by these jurors sends a powerful, a powerful, unmistakable message to public servants, to law enforcement officers and to the citizens we serve and indeed to the world,” then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said outside the federal courthouse after the verdict was read two years ago. “That message is that public officials and especially law enforcement officers will be held accountable for their acts, and that any abuse of power, especially that power that violates the rights and the civil liberties of our citizens, will have serious consequences.”
“The citizens of this country will not, should not, and we intend that they will never have to fear the individuals who are called upon to protect them,” Letten added. “The citizens of this country should not have to fear the people called upon to protect them.”
Attorneys for the five former officers convicted at trial in 2011 have argued that a series of leaks to news organizations were part of a “secret public relations campaign” that deprived their clients of a fair trial.
“The government’s actions, and initial lack of candor and credibility thereafter, is like scar tissue that will long evidence infidelity to the principles of ethics, professionalism and basic fairness and common sense necessary to every criminal prosecutor, wherever it should occur in this country,” Engelhardt wrote.
“Given the time, effort and energy invested by the court in this matter from the beginning, this is indeed a bitter pill to swallow,” Englehardt added.
Police shot and killed two unarmed people and wounded four others on Sept. 4, 2005, at the Danziger Bridge before engaging in a cover-up designed to make the shootings appear justified.
Police killed Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, and James Brissette, a 17-year-old high school student. The four people wounded in the Danziger Bridge shootings were Leonard Bartholomew III, Susan Bartholomew, Lesha Bartholomew and Jose Holmes Jr.
Former NOPD Officer Robert Faulcon received the stiffest sentence, a 65-year prison term, for his alleged involvement in shooting two of the victims. Former sergeants Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius were sentenced to 40 years behind bars for their roles in the incident, while ex-officer Robert Villavaso was sentenced to 38 years.
Former Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who was charged with and convicted of helping the officers to cover up the alleged crimes committed on the bridge, received the lightest sentence, six years, for his role in the deadly post-Katrina incident.
Judge Englehardt gave prosecutors and defense attorneys a month to work out any scheduling issues so that new trial dates can be set.
Former NOPD Officer Anthony Villavaso’s attorney, Tim Meche, told The Associated Press that he hopes the DOJ re-evaluates whether the case should be retried. “The judge’s opinion validates our belief that this case was a perversion of justice,” Meche said.
Eric Hessler, former Ofc. Robert Gisevius’ attorney, said last week, “We’re pleased that the officers will get a chance to defend themselves with a fair trial this time around.”
“We are disappointed with the court’s ruling,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in a brief statement. “We are reviewing the decision and considering our options.”
W.C. Johnson, a member of CUC and host of local cable-access show “OurStory,” said he was not at all surprised by Tuesday’s ruling. “Black folks must remember that the police and the courts are all part of the criminal justice system and in order for the system to work properly, the system must take care of its own,” he told The Louisiana Weekly. “Any other turn of events would weaken the system. Now the police have an opportunity to correct the mistakes they made at trial and hope for a sympathetic jury who will validate the worthlessness of Black folks’ lives. My sympathy goes out to the families who are being put through this heinous ordeal once again. Obviously, this was not a factor in Judge Englehardt’s decision.”
The Rev. Raymond Brown, a community activist and president of National Action Now, said Thursday that Blacks in New Orleans and across the U.S. are still battling the same forces that have oppressed people of color since the nation was founded. “Not very much has changed,” Brown told The Louisiana Weekly.
“The lesson with regard to the Danziger Bridge case is that Black people and people of good will can never let their guard down,” Brown added. “We must be always vigilant and ready to move whenever we need to. The struggle is nowhere near over.”
Danatus King, president of the New Orleans branch of the NAACP, said Thursday that last week’s left him with more questions. “The biggest issue is whether or not there’s going to be a move made to change the venue,” King told The Louisiana Weekly. “Secondly, whether there’s going to be some kind of plea that those officers will accept this time. “Additionally, there’s the issue of whether or not there’s going to be any further house-cleaning in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. From what I’ve scanned in Judge Englehardt’s order, there’s more than has been reported about what (former U.S. Attorney) Letten knew and when he knew it. There are some questions about who else knew it, who else was doing it and who else could be liable for even criminal sanctions. There are some very prominent folks that have a lot of connections in that office and are still there including the brother of our mayor and our senator. We’re not hearing too much about that now.”
King said that the resignations of Jim Letten, Sal Perricone and Jan Mann may be seen as positive steps taken to clean house in the U.S. Attorney’s Office but could be a harbinger of more turmoil in the office. “[I]f what they did deserves even more of a response, it would just further erode faith in the justice system,” he said.
“If it’s discovered that Mr. Letten actually lied to the judge or lied to federal investigators, that is a crime that is punishable by imprisonment,” King added.
“Folks are talking about whether or not there really is justice,” King said. “It really is having a negative impact on the faith in the system. When you can just stand up and lie not only to investigators but to a federal judge with impunity, it doesn’t look like everybody’s being treated the same. Everybody’s not playing on a level playing field.”
King said U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite is inheriting an office fraught with issues and challenges. “His nomination was recommended by a senator whose brother works in that office,” King told The Louisiana Weekly. “That kind of raises a question as to whether he’s going to be able to call it as he sees it and are there going to be any considerations given for any relationships or anything like that.”
“Judge Englehardt’s order should be a wake-up call for everyone in New Orleans,” W.C. Johnson told The Louisiana Weekly. “Everyone should pay. Since a federal judge has determined that Jim Letten and his staff have broken the law, then Jim and his staff should be arraigned and prosecuted for the laws they have broken and forced to serve time for these transgressions. The people of New Orleans need to be calling for charges to be brought against Jim Letten, Sal Perricone, Jan Mann and Karla Dobinski for starters. If the U.S. justice system is to survive as the greatest legal system in the world — America’s claim, not mine — then these people must be brought to justice.”
After the five officers were convicted two years ago, Sherrell Johnson, the mother of James Brissette, spoke to reporters outside of the federal courthouse. “I have been robbed a great deal because he was only 17,” a still-grieving Sherrell Johnson said. “There is nothing for James — nothing. No prom, no first car, no baby, nothing. My child will never have nothing. He will forever more be an urn of ashes.”
Last week, Sherrell Johnson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that she was not pleased with Judge Englehardt’s decision to grant the five officers a new trial. “Is my son going to get a new lease on life?” she asked. “Is he coming back? What about the mental anguish that these people put us through? It is not fair to make us sit through that again.”
The family of Ronald Madison expressed its displeasure with the judge’s decision to retry the officers and vows to continue to fight for justice in the case.
“We are extremely disappointed in Judge Engelhardt’s decision granting a new trial in the Danziger Criminal Civil Rights case,” Dr. Romell Madison said. “It has been over eight years since our brother Ronald was shot and killed on the Danziger Bridge and our brother Lance was falsely arrested and framed on eight counts of murder. This decision reopens this terrible wound not only for our family, but our entire community. From the beginning of this ordeal our family has sought justice, not just for ourselves but for all the victims and families. We urge the Department of Justice to appeal Judge Engelhardt’s decision. Our fight for justice continues.”
*Additional reporting by La. Weekly editor Edmund W. Lewis.
This article originally published in the September 23, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.