A US judge on Wednesday handed down prison sentences ranging from 6 to 65 years to five former New Orleans police officers for their roles in the deadly shootings on a bridge in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Two people, namely 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, were killed and four others were injured in the shooting incident. The shootings occurred on New Orleans' Danziger Bridge on September 4, 2005, just six days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.
The five former police officers sentenced by US District Judge Kurt Engelhardt on Wednesday were Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon, Anthony Villavaso and retired detective Arthur Kaufman. They were earlier convicted of deprivation of rights and other civil rights violation by a federal jury in August.
While Faulcon was sentenced to 65 years in prison, Bowen and Gisevius received 40 years each and Villavaso was handed down a 38-year-sentence. Kaufman received a six-year prison sentence for helping to co-ordinate the cover-up. Kaufman, who was free on bail until the sentencing while his four co-defendants remained in prison, was ordered to report to prison on May 23.
"We hope that today's sentences give a measure of peace and closure to the victims of this terrible shooting, who have suffered unspeakable pain and who have waited so patiently for justice to be done," Thomas Perez, the head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said in a statement after the sentencing.
"The officers who shot innocent people on the bridge and then went to great lengths to cover up their own crimes have finally been held accountable for their actions. As a result of today's sentencing, the city of New Orleans can take another step forward," Perez added.
Earlier, the jury had convicted Robert Faulcon, Anthony Villavaso, Sgt Robert Gisevius and Sgt Kenneth Bowen of charges of civil rights violation as well as firearms charges related to their participation in the shootings and the alleged cover-up. Kaufman was found guilty only of charges related to the cover-up.
Despite prosecution arguments that there was no justification in the police officers shooting unarmed citizens, the jurors did not find the two deaths in the incident as murder. The jury arrived at the verdict after three days of deliberations.
In earlier hearings of the five-week-long trial, prosecutors had accused the defendants of opening fire at five unarmed citizens and attempting later to cover up the incident by using made-up witnesses, falsified reports and a planted gun.
Nevertheless, defense lawyers insisted that their clients had only returned fire after being shot at by the six people on the bridge. They said the defendants returned fire believing that their lives were in danger. They also requested the jury to consider the "terrible, horrible circumstances" under which the defendants were operating at the time of the shooting incident.
The police officers involved in the case had turned themselves over to authorities in 2007, following the US Justice Department's efforts at cleaning up the New Orleans police department of corruption and mistreatment of suspects. In the aftermath of the Katrina disaster, the city's residents accused the department of rights violation and brutal treatments.
In 2010, about 20 serving and former New Orleans police officers were charged in a series of federal investigations. Michael Hunter who pleaded guilty in 2010 to conspiracy to obstruct justice has been convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison in connection with the shootings.
by RTT Staff Writer
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