|The brother of Lance Madison (C) was shot dead on September 4, 2005, at the Danziger Bridge in new Orleans [Reuters]
Five former New Orleans police officers have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 65 years for their roles in deadly shootings of unarmed residents in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina.
The presiding judge lashed out at prosecutors for two hours on Wednesday on their handling of the case in which police shot six people at a bridge on September 4, 2005, killing two, less than a week after Katrina made landfall.
To make the shootings appear justified, officers conspired to plant a gun, fabricate witnesses and falsify reports. The case became the centerpiece of the US Justice Department's push to clean up the troubled New Orleans Police Department.
Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon were convicted of federal firearms charges that carried mandatory minimum prison sentences of at least 35 years. Retired officer Arthur Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shootings, was convicted of helping orchestrate the cover-up.
Faulcon, who was convicted on charges in both fatal shootings, faces the stiffest sentence of 65 years. Bowen and Gisevius each face 40 years, while Villavaso was sentenced to 38. Kaufman received the lightest sentence at six
Afterward, US District Judge Kurt Engelhardt accused prosecutors of cutting overly lenient plea deals with five other officers who cooperated with the civil rights investigation. The former officers pleaded guilty to helping cover up the shooting and are already serving prison terms ranging from three to eight years.
"These through-the-looking-glass plea deals that tied the hands of this court ... are an affront to the court and a disservice to the community," Engelhardt said.
The judge also questioned the credibility of the officers who pleaded guilty and testified against those who went to trial.
In particular, the judge criticized prosecutors for seeking a 20-year prison sentence for Kaufman, yet Michael Lohman, who was the highest-ranking officer at the scene of the shooting, received four years under his deal for pleading guilty to participating in the cover-up.
Engelhardt heard several hours of arguments and testimony earlier on Wednesday from prosecutors, defense attorneys, relatives of shooting victims and the officers. Ronald Madison and 17-year-old James Brissette died in the shootings.
"This has been a long and painful six-and-a-half years," said Lance Madison, whose 40-year-old, mentally disabled brother, Ronald, was killed at the bridge. "The people of New Orleans and my family are ready for justice."
Madison individually addressed each defendant, including Faulcon, who shot his brother: "When I look at you, my pain becomes unbearable. You took the life of an angel and basically ripped my heart out."
Madison also said he was horrified by Kaufman's actions in the cover-up: "You tried to frame me, a man you knew was innocent, and send me to prison for the rest of my life."
Lance Madison was arrested on attempted murder charges after police falsely accused him of shooting at the officers on the bridge. He was jailed for three weeks before a judge freed him.
None of the officers addressed the court before they were sentenced.
Katrina struck on August 29, 2005, leading to the collapse of levees and flooding an estimated 80 per cent of the city. New Orleans was plunged into chaos as residents who hadn't evacuated were driven from their homes to what high places they could find.
Officers who worked in the city at the time but were not charged in the bridge case on Wednesday told Engelhardt of the lawlessness that followed the flood, and that they feared for their lives.
On the morning of September 4, one group of residents was crossing the Danziger Bridge in the city's Gentilly area in search of food and supplies when police arrived.
The officers had received calls that shots were being fired. Gunfire reports were common after Katrina.
Faulcon was convicted of fatally shooting Madison, but the jury decided the killing didn't amount to murder. He, Gisevius, Bowen and Villavaso were convicted in Brissette's killing, but jurors didn't hold any of them individually responsible for causing his death.
All five officers were convicted of participating in a cover-up.