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Feds to investigate NOPD 'bridge shootings'

Related article:
New Orleans cops cleared in bridge shooting

By Mary Foster
The Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS — The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney's office in New Orleans will investigate the fatal shootings which occurred on a city bridge following Hurricane Katrina.

"In the best spirit of law enforcement coordination, and at the request of the victim's families, the New Orleans District Attorney has referred the matter to the United States Department of Justice for review," U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said in a statement.

Letten said his office, the Justice Department and the FBI would take "as much time and resources as necessary to determine whether there are any prosecutable violations of federal criminal laws in this matter."

Tuesday's announcement follows the dismissal of charges against seven New Orleans police officers accused of gunning down two men on a bridge in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Police officials have acknowledged the officers shot people from both sides of the bridge, but said they were shot at first.

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 in December 2006.

"I am totally shocked," said attorney Franz Zibilich, who represents Faulcon. "The state never had jurisdiction over civil rights violations. And it's been three years. You would think if the Feds were interested they would have investigated long before this.

In throwing out the murder and attempted murder charges on Sept. 13, State 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.

"The violation is clear," Bigelow said in making the ruling.

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 taking fire.

After Bigelow quashed the indictments, religious and civil rights groups in New Orleans called for the district attorney to refile charges against the officers.

The family of one of the men shot had also asked for the Justice Department investigation.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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