Jury to deliberate in Katrina shootings trial

August 3, 2011 - 4:28 AM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The federal trial of five current and former police officers charged in deadly shootings on a bridge only days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans has reached the stage of jury deliberations, capping weeks of prosecution and defense wrangling over whether the use of force was justified.

Prosecutors contended in closing arguments that officers shot unarmed people without justification and without warning, killing two people and wounding four others Sept. 5, 2005, and then embarked on a cover-up involving fabricated witnesses, falsified reports and a planted gun.

Defense attorneys countered that the officers were returning fire on the city's Danziger Bridge and reasonably believed their lives were in danger as they rushed in to respond to another officer's distress call.

Jury deliberations were expected to begin Wednesday after U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt finished reading final instructions on the law and the charges in the case. That comes after nearly seven hours of closing arguments Tuesday and weeks of testimony by roughly 60 witnesses in the case, which had as its backdrop the chaos, panic and lawlessness that gripped the flooded city in the days after Katrina hit.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Theodore Carter said in final arguments that police had no justification for shooting unarmed, defenseless people.

"It was unreasonable for these officers to fire even one shot, let alone dozens," he told jurors.

All told, jurors heard roughly 60 witnesses in the Justice Department's case against former officer Robert Faulcon, Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, Officer Anthony Villavaso and retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman. Faulcon, Gisevius, Bowen and Villavaso are charged in the shootings and with taking part in the alleged cover-up. Kaufman, who investigated the shootings, is charged only in the alleged cover-up.

Defense attorneys say police were shot at on the bridge before they returned fire.

"None of these people intentionally decided to go out there and cause people harm," said Timothy Meche, Villavaso's lawyer. He said they did their best, operating under "terrible, horrible circumstances."

Eric Hessler, Gisevius' attorney, accused the government of ignoring evidence that somebody shot at the bridge from a grassy area nearby.

Carter, however, said the claim that police encountered armed residents is discredited by the officers' failure to recover any weapons.

"This wasn't a gunfight. This was carnage," the prosecutor said.

On the morning of the shootings, a group of officers piled into a rental truck and drove to the bridge in response to another officer's distress call.

On the east side of the bridge, officers allegedly opened fire on a group of people without issuing warnings or identifying themselves, according to prosecutors. The prosecutors say Bowen leaned over a concrete barrier and randomly sprayed gunfire at wounded, unarmed people seeking cover.

"There's no excuse for that. There was no threat," Carter said. "What is that? That's attempted murder."

Faulcon, the only defendant to testify, said he was "paralyzed with fear" when he shot and killed 40-year-old Ronald Madison as he chased him and his brother, Lance Madison. Faulcon didn't dispute that he shot an unnamed man in the back, but said he had believed Ronald Madison was armed and posed a threat.

Prosecutors contend Kaufman retrieved a gun from his home weeks after the shootings and turned it in as evidence, trying to pass it off as a gun belonging to Lance Madison. He also is accused of fabricating two non-existent witnesses to the shootings.

Kaufman's attorney, Stephen London, said another investigator, retired Sgt. Gerard Dugue, was responsible for the contents of the department's official report on the shootings. London told jurors they heard proof that Kaufman didn't write any false reports.

"He not only didn't sign anything, they don't have anybody who puts his finger anywhere near that," London added.

Dugue also is charged in the case but is scheduled to be tried separately later.

In 2006, seven officers were indicted in state court on murder or attempted murder charges. After a state judge dismissed those charges in 2008, the Justice Department's civil rights division opened an investigation.

Lance Madison, who was arrested on attempted murder charges but later cleared by the state grand jury, has said he believed teenagers were shooting at him and his brother on the bridge. He disavowed that recollection during the trial, but defense attorneys said his earlier statements were powerful evidence that police faced a deadly threat.

Officer Heather Gore, who isn't charged in the case, testified before a federal grand jury that she saw a man point an assault rifle at police when she jumped out of the rental truck. Justice Department prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein called her a liar.

"The only people with guns on the bridge that day were the officers," she said.