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New Orleans officers plead not guilty in post-Katrina fatal shootings

A symbolic burial service in honor of the unclaimed bodies left behind by Hurricane Katrina. The solemn ceremonies mark the third anniversary of the killer storm. Video by AP

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By Michael W. Savage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010

Three New Orleans police officers charged in the fatal shootings of two unarmed men on a bridge after Hurricane Katrina pleaded not guilty Wednesday in a case that drew national attention to their department's handling of civil order during that troubled period.

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Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen and Officer Anthony Villavaso entered their pleas during court appearances in New Orleans. A fourth defendant, former officer Robert Faulcon, was arrested Tuesday in Texas and has not entered a plea. Two former homicide detectives, Archie Kaufman and Gerard Dugue, have been charged with participating in a subsequent coverup.

The Danziger Bridge shootings are the most prominent in a series of incidents in the chaos after Katrina that pitted city residents against police. The shootings are one of eight incidents being examined as part of a comprehensive investigation of the New Orleans police by the Justice Department.

Critics of the New Orleans police said Wednesday that they welcome the indictments, unsealed Tuesday, as a sign that the Justice probe is making progress. Five other former officers have pleaded guilty to helping cover up the bridge shootings.

Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Louisiana, said she was satisfied that the inquiry would be thorough.

"What we've always said is that we simply wanted an adequate investigation," she said. "It is because of the federal probe that we've had any indictments at all."

Attorneys for the six men say the indictment is riddled with errors and criticize the government for bringing charges five years after the shootings.

"The indictment itself is full of things that are simply incorrect," said Frank DeSalvo, the lawyer representing Bowen. "We know what happened on that day. We feel fairly confident we will be able to show the government the error of its ways."

An attorney for Gisevius, Eric Hessler, has said that investigators should have taken into consideration the chaotic conditions in which police were operating. Claude Kelly, Dugue's attorney, said Wednesday that his client is "100 percent innocent" of the charges against him.

Gisevius, Bowen, Villavaso and Faulcon were charged with federal civil rights violations in the killing of James Brissette, a 17-year-old who prosecutors say had been walking across the bridge to buy supplies. Brissette was crossing with five members of the Bartholomew family, four of whom were also shot.

Faulcon also was charged in the shooting death of Ronald Madison. The 40-year-old, who had severe mental disabilities, was shot in the back as he fled.

The three current officers have been suspended without pay. The U.S. attorney's office in New Orleans has not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty in the case.

Rafael C. Goyeneche III, a former prosecutor in New Orleans who is president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a nonprofit group tackling corruption in Louisiana, said the indictments signaled "a new phase" of the federal civil rights investigation. "It is an indication that the federal government is now using the information they have acquired and consolidated it with the information with cooperating officers," he said.

At a news conference Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. suggested that the charges were far from the end of the federal probe.

"It will take more than this investigation to renew the New Orleans Police Department and to allow it to thrive," Holder told reporters. Both the city's new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, and newly appointed police chief, Ronal Serpas, have vowed to reform the department.

Brissette was shot seven times as he crossed the bridge on Sept. 4, 2005, according to the indictment. Susan Bartholomew was shot in the arm, and her husband, Leonard, was shot in the head.

On the other side of the bridge, the indictment states, Gisevius shot at Madison and his brother, Lance, who were on their way to check on the office of their brother, Romell. The indictiment alleges that Bowen stomped and kicked Madison as he lay dying.

Kaufman is accused of planting a gun at the scene and of fabricating witness statements. He and Dugue are accused of holding a secret meeting in which the officers involved in the shootings were told to ensure that their accounts were consistent.

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