The New York Times by Campbell Robertson - April 4, 2012
NEW ORLEANS, LA — Five former police officers were sentenced to prison on Wednesday for the shooting of six unarmed civilians, two of whom died, in the days after Hurricane Katrina and for orchestrating a wide-ranging cover-up afterward. The four officers directly involved in the shooting were sentenced in federal court to lengthy terms ranging from 38 to 65 years, while a police sergeant who was charged with investigating the shooting, and instead helped lead the efforts to hide and distort what happened, was sentenced to six years. But while the sentences were long, they were not nearly as long as prosecutors were seeking — in one case less than a third of the sentence the government recommended — and for the most part were either the mandatory minimum or a few years more than the minimum. Before delivering the sentences, Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt of the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana gave a two-hour speech condemning mandatory minimum sentences for interfering with judicial discretion and criticizing the case put together by federal prosecutors, saying in particular that he was “astonished and deeply troubled” by the plea deals with cooperating witnesses at the heart of the government’s case. Three police officers who pleaded guilty and later testified at the trial were involved in the shooting on the bridge and received sentences ranging from five to eight years. Two others, a detective and a police lieutenant who helped orchestrate the cover-up, were sentenced to three and four years. The judge spoke of an “air of mendacity” about the prosecution, charging that the plea bargains — which involved lesser charges that came with capped sentences — had limited his discretion in sentencing those who were convicted.
Prosecutors afterward defended their strategy, explaining to reporters that the case was cold when the Justice Department picked it up after a mishandled prosecution by the local district attorney and a dismissal of all charges by a judge in 2008. “I’ve never seen an easy police case in my life,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, who called it the most significant police misconduct prosecution since the Rodney King beating case in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. “I have in particular observed in the New Orleans Police Department that the code of silence was seemingly impenetrable.” Jim Letten, the United States attorney for the Eastern District, called the plea deals “not only appropriate but necessary” for a successful prosecution. The five former officers were convicted in August on a range of counts including federal civil rights violations and lying to investigators. The account of their actions given at the trial was a grim one. On Sept 4, 2005, as much of the city still lay submerged in floodwaters, Sgt. Kenneth Bowen and Sgt. Robert Gisevius and Officers Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon jumped in a Budget rental truck with several other officers and raced to the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans, responding to a distress call. As soon as they arrived, witnesses at the trial said, the officers began firing on members of the Bartholomew family, who were trying to find a grocery store. A 17-year-old named James Brisette, a family friend, was killed and four others were gravely wounded. The police then began to chase Lance Madison and his brother Ronald, who was 40 years old and mentally disabled, who were trying to get to the other side of the bridge. Ronald Madison was shot in the back by Officer Faulcon and then stomped on by Sergeant Bowen, and Lance Madison was arrested at the scene and accused of shooting at the police. He was later cleared by a grand jury. The four who were convicted of taking part in the shooting came into the hearing on Wednesday facing sentences of at least 35 years because of mandatory sentencing guidelines; Mr. Faulcon was facing at least 65 years. All could have been sentenced to life in prison. As it was, Mr. Bowen and Mr. Gisevius were sentenced to 40 years, Mr. Villavaso to 38 years and Mr. Faulcon to 65 years. A cover-up began immediately after the shooting, and eventually grew to include made-up witnesses and a planted handgun. A retired sergeant, Arthur Kaufman, a veteran investigator, was charged with administering much of the cover-up, and while he came into court Wednesday without a mandatory minimum, he was facing up to 120 years in prison. He was sentenced to six years. Jordan Flaherty contributed reporting.