Danziger Bridge shootings
|Danziger Bridge Massacre|
|Location||New Orleans, Louisiana, United States|
|Date||September 4, 2005 (CDT)|
|Weapons||Assault rifle, shotgun|
|Perpetrators||New Orleans Police Department officers Kenneth Bowen; Robert Faulcon, Jr.; Robert Gisevius, Jr.; and Anthony Villavaso II.|
The Danziger Bridge shootings were police shootings that took place on September 4, 2005, at the Danziger Bridge in New Orleans, Louisiana. Six days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, members of the city's police department killed two people: 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison. Four other people were wounded. All victims were unarmed. Madison, a mentally disabled man, was shot in the back. New Orleans police fabricated a cover-up story for their crime, falsely reporting that seven police officers responded to a police dispatch reporting an officer down, and that at least four people were firing weapons at the officers upon their arrival.
On August 5, 2011, a federal jury in New Orleans convicted five police officers of myriad charges related to the cover-up and deprivation of civil rights. However, the convictions were vacated on September 17, 2013 due to prosecutorial misconduct, and a new trial was ordered.
On September 4, 2005, New Orleans police received a call from an officer at Danziger Bridge reporting gunfire. Several NOPD officers—including Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius, Officer Anthony Villavaso, and Officer Robert Faulcon—arrived at the scene in a Budget rental truck. They proceeded to open fire with assault rifles and a shotgun on an unarmed family, the Bartholomews, who had been walking to a grocery store and were then sheltering behind a concrete barrier. 17-year-old James Brissette—a family friend—was killed, and four other people were wounded. Two brothers, Ronald and Lance Madison, fled the scene, but were pursued down the bridge by Gisevius and Faulcon in an unmarked state police vehicle. Faulcon fired his shotgun from the back of the car at Ronald, a developmentally disabled man who would later die from his injuries. Bowen was later convicted of stomping him on the back before he died, though this conviction was overturned for lack of physical evidence. Lance Madison was then taken into custody and accused of the attempted murder of police officers.
No weapons were recovered at the scene, and both police and civilian witnesses testified that the victims had been unarmed. Later investigation showed that some shots had been fired in the area by trapped residents attempting to attract the attention of rescuers.
Initial investigation and cover-up
The police shooters stated that while approaching the bridge, they had been fired on by civilians, and were forced to return fire. Homicide detective Arthur "Archie" Kaufman was made the lead investigator on the case. He was later found guilty of conspiring with the defendants to conceal evidence in order to make the shootings appear justified, including fabricating information for his official reports on the case. NOPD lieutenant Michael Lohman also encouraged the officers to "provide false stories about what had precipitated the shooting" and plant a firearm near the scene.
The police officers involved in the shooting were taken into custody on January 2, 2007, and were indicted for murder and attempted murder. Gisevius, Bowen, and Villavaso were charged with the first-degree murder of Brissette. Faulcon was charged with the first-degree murder of Madison. Those officers, as well as NOPD officers Michael Hunter, Ignatius Hills and Robert Barrios, were indicted on charges of attempted murder relating to the other four victims. On August 13, 2008, the indictments were dismissed by District Judge Raymond Bigelow due to prosecutorial misconduct. Bigelow found that the prosecutors had wrongly instructed the grand jury, improperly used grand jury testimony against three of the defendants, and divulged grand jury testimony to a witness in the case.
Two weeks later, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI began investigating the case. Jim Letten, the U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, vowed his office would take "as much time and resources as necessary" to resolve the case.
In 2010, the investigation resulted in a series of guilty pleas from participants in the cover-up. On February 24, 2010, Lohman entered a plea of guilty to obstruction of justice in federal court. On March 11, Jeffrey Lehrmann, another former NOPD officer, pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony for failing to report the cover-up. On April 7, Michael Hunter, one of the seven officers originally charged with attempted murder in 2007, pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony and obstruction of justice. Hunter later became a key witness in the case against Bowen, Gisevius, Faulcon, and Villavaso.
On April 16, Robert Barrios was charged with one count of conspiring to obstruct justice, becoming the fourth NOPD officer to be federally charged in the case. He promptly resigned from the force. A fifth man, Marion David Ryder, a civilian who witnessed the incident and falsely represented himself as a law enforcement officer, was also charged in the case. He was accused of lying to the FBI about the event when he claimed that one of the victims had a weapon. On April 28, he pleaded guilty to the charges. On May 21, Ignatius Hills was charged by a bill of information with one count of conspiring to obstruct justice and one count of misprision of a felony, becoming the fifth NOPD officer to be federally charged. He had resigned from the force the previous day. A former police officer stated at Hills' trial that Hills had used a racial slur in later describing how he tried to "pop a round off" at 14-year-old Leonard Bartholomew.
On July 13, 2010, a federal grand jury indicted Bowen, Gisevius, Faulcon, and Villavaso in connection with the shooting and subsequent cover-up. Additionally, Kaufman and Gerard Dugue, the original investigators in the case, were charged with falsifying reports and false prosecution in the conspiracy to cover up the shooting. While the federal government lacked jurisdiction to file murder charges in the case, they were able to file charges under federal civil rights statutes intended to enforce Section 1 of the 14th Amendment. Under Title 18 U.S.C. Section 242, "Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law", anyone who acts, under color of law, to unlawfully deprive a citizen of their right to life, may be sentenced to death.
Guilty verdicts were handed down for Bowen, Gisevius, Faulcon, Villavaso and Kaufman on August 5, 2011. The defendants were found guilty of the following:
- Kenneth Bowen: 6 counts of deprivation of rights under color of law, 2 counts of using a weapon during commission of a crime of violence, 1 count of conspiracy, 2 counts of obstruction of justice, and 1 count of civil rights conspiracy.
- Robert Faulcon, Jr.: 6 counts of deprivation of rights under color of law, 3 counts of using a weapon during commission of a crime of violence, 1 count of conspiracy, 2 counts of obstruction of justice, and 1 count of civil rights conspiracy.
- Robert Gisevius, Jr.: 5 counts of deprivation of rights under color of law, 2 counts of using a weapon during commission of a crime of violence, 1 count of conspiracy, 1 count of obstruction of justice, and 2 counts of civil rights conspiracy.
- Anthony Villavaso II: 5 counts of deprivation of rights under color of law, 2 counts of using a weapon during commission of a crime of violence, 1 count of conspiracy, 1 count of obstruction of justice, and 1 count of civil rights conspiracy.
- Arthur Kaufman: 4 counts of falsifying official records in a federal investigation, 3 counts of false statements, 2 counts of civil rights conspiracy for false persecution, and 1 count of conspiracy.
On April 4, 2012, District Judge Kurt Engelhardt sentenced Faulcon to 65 years' imprisonment, Bowen and Gisevius to 40 years, Villavaso to 38 years, and Kaufman to 6 years. Engelhardt was critical of how the prosecution had been pursued, stating that he was "astonished and deeply troubled" by the number of plea bargains offered to other participants who served as witnesses. Federal prosecutors responded that the plea bargains had been necessary for a difficult case that had been "cold" when they assumed responsibility.
Gerard Dugue, who is alleged to have conspired in the cover-up with Kaufman, had his original hearing ruled a mistrial in January 2012. His retrial was postponed to allow for appellate court petitions from both the prosecution and defense, and was set for March 11, 2013, then delayed and set for May 13, 2013, but has now been indefinitely delayed.
On May 18, 2012—a month after they were convicted—the five officers appealed their convictions, arguing that federal prosecutors had engaged in a public relations campaign against their clients by anonymously posting comments on NOLA.com, the Website of New Orleans' local paper, The Times-Picayune. Principally, the defendants cited comments made by Sal Perricone, the former top trial attorney for the Eastern District (though Perricone was not involved in the prosecution of the Danziger Bridge case). Perricone's activities had been exposed in March 2012 in an unrelated case, and he had resigned soon afterward.
On September 17, 2013, following a yearlong probe into the defendants' claims, Englehardt vacated Bowen, Faulcon, Gisevius, Villavaso and Kaufman's convictions and ordered a new trial. In his order, Englehardt cited what he called "highly unusual, extensive and truly bizarre actions" by prosecutors—specifically, leaks to certain media outlets and comments that were posted by members of the U.S. Attorney's Office in online forums. The probe revealed that Perricone had made numerous posts attacking the NOPD as early as 2008, and had also made posts urging witnesses to join Lohman in pleading guilty. It also revealed that Perricone and Justice Department official Karla Dobinski had made posts regarding trial testimony while the trial was underway. Dobinski was the head of a Justice Department "taint team" that was to help ensure testimony Bowen gave to the state grand jury wasn't used improperly.
- Crime in Louisiana
- Death of Henry Glover
- Effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans
- List of killings by law enforcement officers in the United States
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