07/13/2010

More cops charged in Katrina bridge shootings

Four more officers have been charged and could face the most serious punishment yet — death

By Michael Kunzelman
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Four more New Orleans police officers have been charged in the deadly shootings of two people in Hurricane Katrina's chaotic aftermath and could face the most serious punishment yet — the death penalty — for the killings that have brought down a string of other officers.

Six current or former officers are charged in a 27-count indictment unsealed Tuesday. Five former New Orleans police officers already have pleaded guilty to helping cover up the shootings on the Danziger Bridge that left two men dead and four wounded just days after the August 2005 hurricane. In one instance, a mentally disabled man was shot in the back and stomped before he died.

The indictment charges Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, officer Anthony Villavaso and former officer Robert Faulcon with deprivation of rights under color of law and use of a weapon during the commission of a crime. They could face the death penalty if convicted, though U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said prosecutors haven't decided whether to seek that punishment.

Sgt. Arthur Kaufman and retired Sgt. Gerard Dugue, who helped investigate the shootings, were charged with participating in a cover-up to make it appear the shootings were justified. Charges against them include obstruction of justice.

The five former officers who already have pleaded guilty in the Danziger case are cooperating with prosecutors while they await sentencing. They pleaded guilty to lesser charges than those in this week's indictment.

The case is one of several probes of alleged misconduct by New Orleans police officers that the Justice Department opened after the August 2005 storm. Last month, five current or former officers were charged in the shooting death of 31-year-old Henry Glover, whose burned body turned up after Katrina.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department is working with city officials to restore residents' trust in the police department.

"Put simply, we will not tolerate wrongdoing by those who are sworn to protect the public," Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday in New Orleans.

Eric Hessler, a lawyer for Gisevius, said the indictment wasn't a surprise.

"We have long anticipated that this day may come," he said. "We're certainly ready to begin the process of defending him against these allegations."

Claude Kelly, a lawyer for Dugue, called the indictment "a travesty" and denied his client participated in a cover-up.

"This is just overreaching, Monday morning quarterbacking by the government," Kelly said.

Faulcon, who resigned from the department shortly after the storm, was arrested at his home in Houston on Tuesday. Gisevius, Bowen and Villavaso surrendered at FBI headquarters in New Orleans.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said prosecutors will ask for all four of them to be detained.

Some of the defense attorneys bristled at the arrest of Faulcon.

"They really didn't have to do that," said Frank DeSalvo, a lawyer for Bowen. "Nobody is going anywhere. We've never thought about doing anything other than face these charges."

Kaufman and Dugue weren't arrested. A date for the six men's initial court appearances wasn't immediately set.

The indictment claims Faulcon shot 40-year-old Lance Madison, who had severe mential disabilities, in the back as he ran away on the west side of the bridge. Bowen is charged with stomping and kicking Madison while he was lying on the ground, wounded but still alive.

His brother, Lance Madison, was arrested and charged with trying to kill police officers. He was jailed for three weeks and released without being indicted.

Bowen, Gisevius, Faulcon and Villavaso also are accused of shoooting at an unarmed family on the east side of the bridge, killing 17-year-old James Brissette and wounding four others.

All six officers are charged with participating in a cover-up. In court filings, police are accused of fabricating nonexistent witnesses, plotting to plant a gun to make it seem as if the shootings were justified and kicking spent shell casings off the bridge weeks after the shootings.

"This indictment is a continuing reminder that the constitution and the rule of law do not take a holiday, even after a hurricane," said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division.

Dugue retired from the force earlier this year. Kaufman has been on paid sick leave.

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