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Sentences drastically reduced for ex-cops found guilty in Katrina bridge shootings

25th April 2016   ·   0 Comments

Nearly 11 years after they gunned down unarmed civilians on a bridge in eastern New Orleans less than a week after Hurricane Katrina, five former cops awaiting new trials in the shooting that left two civilians dead and four others wounded accepted plea deals and had their sentences drastically reduced.

Coming five years after a grueling trial that grabbed international headlines, last week’s plea deal is the latest turn in a case that included an NOPD cover-up. a breakdown in the so-called “Blue Wall” of silence and an online posting scandal that prompted a federal judge to overturn the five officers’ convictions.

The Danziger Bridge case was one of several high-profile, post-Katrina fatal shootings involving NOPD officers that ultimately led to a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report on the department and a federally mandated consent decree aimed at overhauling a police department the DOJ described as “corrupt” and “abusive.”

The plea deal significantly reduced the former cops’ sentences, in some cases, taking off decades behind bars for Kenneth Bowen, Robert Faulcon, Robert Gisevius, Arthur Kaufman and Anthony Villavaso. U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Engelhardt accepted the plea deals in federal court Wednesday.

Under the plea agreement, Gisevius agreed to 10 years, Faulcon to 12 years, Bowen to 10 years, Villavaso to seven years—each with credit for six years of time served. Kaufman agreed to three years with two years of time served.

All of the Danziger defendants had to admit to a “willful disregard” of the Constitutional rights of the six shooting victims, two of whom died.

The guilty plea stemmed from a shooting at the Danziger Bridge on Sept. 4, 2005 that left Ronald Madison, 40, and James Brissette, 17, dead and four others wounded, but the convictions were later tossed after online comments about the case on stories about the trial were determined to come from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In Aug. 2011, four officers – Bowen, Faulcon, Gisevius and Villavaso – were convicted for their roles in the shootings, and Kaufman was convicted for his role in the cover-up of the shooting.

Initially, Bowen received a 40-year sentence, Faulcon got a 65-year sentence, Gisevius was handed down a 40-year sentence, Kaufman a six-year sentence and Villavaso a 38-year sentence. Faulcon received the stiffest sentence for shooting Madison in the back with a shotgun.

“It is unfortunate that New Orleans has had to relive this dark chapter in our city’s history, and I hope that the decision today will allow us to finally turn the page and begin to heal,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu in a statement after the plea deal was announced.

“We can’t turn the page and move on because justice has not been carried out in this case,” the Rev. Raymond Brown, a community activist and president of National Action Now, said in repines to the mayor’s remarks. “At the end of the day, these cops received very little jail time for shooting down unarmed civilians like animals. That’s inexcusable.”

After Judge Engelhardt threw out the five officers’ convictions and granted them a new trial in the wake of the posting scandal, some community activists accused the U.S. Attorney’s Office, then led by Jim Letten, of using the online posting scandal to ensure that the cops would have a way to avoid lengthy prison sentences if they were convicted.

In 2013, Judge Engelhardt after learning of the online posting scandal overturned the officers’ convictions and granted them a new trial. The scandal ultimately led to the termination of several key federal prosecutors and cost U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, the longest-serving U.S. attorney in the nation’s history, his job.

Letten’s role as U.S. attorney during the scandal remains a sore point for some local Black leaders who pleaded with then U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu to find a Democratic replacement for Letten after President Obama was elected in 2008. That was five years before the posting scandal prompted Engelhardt to overturn the convictions.

“There were a lot of community activists that didn’t trust Jim Letten and had questions about his relationship with the NOPD,” the Rev. Raymond Brown told The Louisiana Weekly. “Some just thought that the Senator could find someone who could do a better job protecting the rights of all of this city’s residents and not just certain segments of the population.

“But Landrieu refused to listen to those concerns and the Black community ended up once again with the short end of the stick,” Brown added.

WWL News reported that a majority of the convictions of the four officers were for charges of deprivation of civil rights (aiding and abetting), use of a weapon in a crime of violence, deprivation of rights (bodily injury), conspiracy to obstruct justice, conspiracy to violate civil rights through false prosecution and hindering communication to federal law enforcement.

Kaufman was convicted on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, conspiracy to violate civil rights through false prosecution, falsification of evidence to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice (concerning a firearm), false statement (concerning a firearm), falsification of victim statements, false statements regarding victims, fabrication of witnesses and false statements regarding fabricated witnesses.

Although the shooting victims’ loved ones were clearly relieved that the case was finally closed Wednesday, it was also evident that they were weary and frustrated with the U.S. Department of Justice for failing to do its job and making it possible for the convictions to be overturned by failing to conduct themselves professionally and ethically.

“Today is the first day of the rest of my life,” Sherrell Johnson, the mother of 17-year-old James Brissette, told reporters Wednesday. “I’ve finally gotten what I wanted: Somebody to confess, ‘I did it.’”

“This has been a terrible ordeal for our family, our friends and this community,” Lance Madison, the brother of 40-year-old disabled victim Ronald Madison who was on the bridge with his brother when he was killed by police, told reporters. “While these officers will have to do time, it will never be enough to make up for what they did.”

“There is nothing fair or just about what those cops did on the Danziger Bridge or how the U.S. Department of Justice and the federal court handled the aftermath,” Ramessu Merriamen Aha, a New Orleans business and former congressional candidate, told The Louisiana Weekly. “What we witnessed today is cops getting away with murder and the cold reality that the U.S. Department of Justice is no match for the City of New Orleans and its ‘old white money.’

“This just confirms that cops in this city can do just about anything to Black, Brown and poor people and not have to suffer any major consequences,” Aha added.

“Think about this: Four of these officers got less time than former Mayor Ray Nagin and the fifth defendant in this murder trial got only two more years than Nagin.”

One of the attorneys for former NOPD Officer Gisevius told the victims’ loved ones after the trial that “everybody on the bridge that day suffered losses” and apologized to them on behalf of his client.

But outside the federal courthouse, Eric Hessler, Gisevius’ attorney, said, “After all was said and done, after the shenanigans the government had played, including the way they treated potential defense witnesses, (the plea deal) was (his client’s) only option. To go to trial again, although that’s what he sincerely wanted to do, we couldn’t. Because the witness that we had, that were shown to have been intimidated (by federal prosecutors), we simply couldn’t regain their confidence.”

Tim Meche, the attorney for former Officer Villavaso, told reporters that his client “did not receive a fair trial” because of alleged prosecutorial misconduct committed by Bobbi Bernstein.

“This plea deal closes one of the darkest chapters in the city’s history and assures us no one is above the law,” U.S. Rep. Richmond said in a statement last week. “This case, which has gone on for more than a decade, not only revealed the brutal and corrupt acts committed by police officers, but the misconduct by former prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office as well.

“Without the commitment and tenacity of the Madison family we would have never reached a just ruling in this case,” Richmond continued. “I am thankful for their resolve to see this painful trial through to the end. If there is anything positive that can be taken from this case it is that those responsible are being held accountable as we work to restore faith in our institutions.

“I am gratified that a decision has finally been reached so the victims and families impacted by this horrible tragedy can finally have some semblance of closure.”

In other NOPD-related news, some residents are now saying that the department’s redeployment plan to address its severe manpower shortage is negatively impacting their neighborhoods by re-assigning quality-of-life officers previously assigned to those communities.

On Wednesday night, Washington, DC-based federal consent-decree monitor Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton hosted a meeting at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in Central City where the public was updated on how the NOPD is doing when it comes to following a federal judge’s orders to implement the 492-point consent decree which began in August 2013.

While he initially praised the goals of the NOPD consent decree, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu later said that the City of New Orleans couldnt afford to pay for NOPD and Orleans Parish Prison consent decrees and that the NOPD didn’t need one because it had already begun implementing reforms. Later, the mayor sought to block the NOPD consent decree by saying the negotiation progress was tainted by the involvement of Sal Perricone and Jan Mann, two of the key federal prosecutors involved in the posting scandal that prompted Judge Engelhardt overturn the five officers; convictions in the Danziger case.

“The consent decree is really about community policing,” said one of the NOPD consent decree monitors updating the public on their efforts to make sure the police department is complying with federal standards for constitutional policing.

Attorney Jonathan Aronie said there are four areas on the monitor’s high-priority watch list including taking a closer look at the police academy which recently installed a new deputy chief to take over.

“The Academy still needs significant work. We still see the materials aren’t adequate, the lesson plans aren’t adequate, or consistent. We see the quality of the instruction is not consistent yet,” Aronie told WWL.

Also on the monitor’s list was the NOPD’s need to improve its sex assault and domestic violence unit. Recommendations include filing clear incident reports, increasing the number of investigators in a unit that’s “clearly under-staffed” and making a better effort to cross-check the criminal histories of offenders.

The consent decree monitor also said lack of supervision needs improvement. Aronie said most supervisors don’t have enough time to supervise. The monitoring team would like to see lieutenants and sergeants get out on the street and be better mentors to patrol officers.

“They did their job and now we really have nothing,” said Daesy Behrhorst with the Louisiana Language Access Coalition.

The biggest complaint brought up by audience members on Wednesday night was a drop in community engagement within the police department.

Behrhorst says the Latino and Vietnamese communities have been left high and dry after officers who were assigned to those communities were redeployed to help combat the police department’s manpower crisis.

“It has greatly impacted the community because we relied on those officers to do translation as well as have a point of contact within the community. They spent several years building that trust with the community,” Behrhorst told WWL.

“Some of the things are working,” said Lionel Coleman, a member of the 6th District Police Community Advisory Board. “It’s just some of the policies that NOPD has implemented in the last couple of months isn’t really working for the community.”

Coleman said some major quality of life issues like blight, high grass, loitering, and abandoned cars have started to fall by the wayside because those point people within the department no longer exist.

“Before the policy changed, we had people that we could go to in the department, direct phone call and get them to change things,” said Coleman.

Meetings with the consent decree monitor take place every three months to coincide with the release of quarterly progress reports.

This article originally published in the April 25, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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