Five former New Orleans police officers pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges that stem from the shooting of six unarmed people — two of whom died — in the days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
These officers were sentenced to terms of between three and 12 years in prison, far less than they faced after being convicted at an earlier trial that was scuttled after what a federal court later described as “shocking breaches of prosecutorial ethics.”
Their pleas and the sentencing came more than a decade after the high-profile shooting on the Danziger Bridge, which drew national scrutiny that, in many ways, preceded the ongoing national focus on how police officers use deadly force. This attention was only magnified by the fact that the shooting occurred amid the chaos and devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina.
Even before a retrial was ordered, the case offered a relative rarity: It is unusual for police officers to be charged for shootings — and even more rare for them to be convicted. A Washington Post investigation last year found that out of the thousands of police officers who fatally shot people over a decade, only dozens of them wound up facing charges stemming from these shootings.
In 2010, the Justice Department announced that it had charged a total of six New Orleans police officers after a federal investigation into the shooting.
Federal authorities said that four of the officers — Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso — shot at an unarmed family on the east side of the bridge on Sept. 4, 2005, killing 17-year-old James Brissette and injuring four others. Minutes later, the officers shot and killed Ronald Madison while firing at him and his brother, Lance, according to prosecutors.
Police had responded to the bridge after receiving a call that other officers in the area had come under fire, according to court records.
When the Justice Department announced that it was indicting six New Orleans officers, it said that the four involved in the bridge shooting and two others — Arthur Kaufman and Gerard Dugue — joined together to cover up what had happened and claim that the shootings were justified. (Dugue, a retired sergeant, was tried separately from the other five. That ended in a mistrial and he is still awaiting a new trial.)
The five New Orleans officers on trial were convicted by a jury; four of them were each sentenced to decades in prison, while Kaufman was given a shorter sentence. But a judge determined that the officers needed a new trial after a lengthy scandal involving U.S. attorneys who had posted anonymous comments online about cases. An appeals court agreed with that in a ruling last year, saying there were “novel and extraordinary” reasons for a new trial.
On Wednesday, the five officers who had been convicted pleaded guilty to more than a dozen combined counts. Most of them pleaded guilty to civil rights violations, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana, and all five pleaded guilty to conspiring to obstruct justice and make false statements.
According to the attorney’s office, Bowen and Gisevius were both sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in prison; they had been sentenced to 40 years after the first trial. Faulcon was also sentenced to 10 years, down from 65 years at the earlier trial. Villavaso was sentenced to seven years; his first sentence was 38 years.
Arthur Kaufman, accused of helping cover up the incident, was sentenced to three years in prison, half of his sentence at the first trial.
“Today is the first day of the rest of my life,” said Sherrell Johnson, whose 17-year-old son James Brissette was killed, according to the Times-Picauyune. “I finally got what I wanted: Someone confessed, ‘I did it.'”
Most of the former officers have been in jail since 2010, and they will get credit for time served, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported.
Roger Kitchens, an attorney for Villavaso, said in an email he was “very pleased to see that this terrible chapter in the lives of the the defendants as well as the lives of the all the people on the bridge” was ending.
Eric Hessler, a former New Orleans police officer and an attorney for Gisevius, said that while the shortened sentences might make it look like the need for a second trial helped the officers in the long run, he did not think this was the case.
“While some people might think it worked to the benefit of these officers, it really didn’t,” Hessler, legal counsel for Police Association of New Orleans, said in a telephone interview. “It deprived them of a right to a fair trial, not only on that first time, but any subsequent time.”
He said that while Gisevius would have preferred to go to trial, despite viewing that as an uphill battle, the sentences everyone agreed to take were likely in their best interest given the circumstances.
The officers had a desire to end the court battle, Hessler said. Now that they have entered their plea, Gisevius knows he could be out of prison and moved to a minimal security facility in about two years, Hessler said.
“I would venture to say there’s a sense of relief that it’s over,” Hessler said. “Is it the right outcome? I’ll stop short of that and say it’s probably the best outcome.”
A Justice Department investigation into the New Orleans police force that was released in 2011 said that investigators found that many officers used deadly force in ways that violated the law or departmental policy.
Investigators noted that their probe specifically did not include any reported misconduct stemming from Hurricane Katrina because these incidents were being prosecuted by federal attorneys.