08/14/2008

New Orleans cops cleared in bridge shooting

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By Mary Foster
The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — A judge threw out murder and attempted murder charges Wednesday against seven New Orleans police officers accused of gunning down two men on a bridge in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In quashing the indictments, District Judge Raymond Bigelow agreed with defense arguments that prosecutors violated state law by divulging secret grand jury testimony to a police officer who was a witness in the case.

Survivors of the Sept. 4, 2005 shootings have said the officers fired at unarmed people crossing the Danziger Bridge to get food at a grocery store. Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, and James Brissette, 19, were shot and killed by police; four other people were wounded.

The officers acknowledged shooting at people on the bridge, but said they did so only after first taking fire.

Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. In its aftermath, levees broke, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans. Chaos gripped the city, and looting was reported in some areas. Rescuers said they thought gunfire was directed at them.

Later investigation revealed at least some of the shooting was by residents trapped by floodwater trying to attract the attention of rescue parties.

Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius Jr., Officer Anthony Villavaso II and former Officer Robert Faulcon Jr. each faced first-degree murder and attempted murder charges in the case. Bigelow also threw out attempted first-degree murder charges against Officer Mike Hunter Jr. and Officer Robert Barrios and attempted second-degree murder charges against Officer Ignatius Hills.

Faulcon resigned from the police force; the other officers were assigned to desk duty after their indictment.

Bigelow also said Wednesday that prosecutors had wrongly instructed the grand jury, and that grand jury testimony by three of the officers was used against them improperly.

The case was the latest in a series of high-profile, emotional criminal prosecutions tied to Katrina that have fizzled.

Last year a grand jury refused to charge a doctor and two nurses in connection with the deaths of four patients at a New Orleans hospital after the storm. A jury also returned a not-guilty verdict against the operators of a St. Bernard Parish nursing home where more than 30 residents died in the storm's flooding.

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