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Five former officers sentenced in Katrina killings

Judge lambastes US prosecutors’ handling of case Says plea deals tied court’s hands

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Sherrel Johnson, mother of James Brisette, who was killed by New Orleans police, was hugged by Rev. Aubrey Wallace.

NEW ORLEANS - Five former New Orleans police officers were sentenced Wednesday 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, with the judge lashing out at prosecutors for two hours on their handling of the case.

Police shot six people at the Danziger Bridge on Sept. 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 Justice Department’s push to clean up the troubled New Orleans Police Department.

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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 Sergeant Arthur Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shootings, was convicted of helping orchestrate the coverup.

Faulcon, who was convicted on charges in both fatal shootings, faces a sentence of 65 years. Bowen and Gisevius each face 40 years, while Villavaso was sentenced to 38. Kaufman received the lightest sentence at six years.

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.

‘Citing witnesses for perjury . . . would be like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.’

US District Judge Kurt Engelhardt lawyer for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders
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“Citing witnesses for perjury at this trial would be like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500,’’ Engelhardt said.

In particular, the judge criticized prosecutors for seeking a 20-year prison sentence for Kaufman, while Michael Lohman, the highest-ranking officer at the scene of the shooting, received four years under his deal for pleading guilty to participating in the coverup.

Engelhardt also questioned how a former detective, Jeffrey Lehrmann, received a lighter sentence of three years when his role in the conspiracy was similar to Kaufman’s, who got six.

“These sentences are, in the court’s opinion, blind,’’ Engelhardt said.

One of Kaufman’s lawyers, Steve London, said his client was pleased the judge sentenced him to a few years less than the guidelines, which had called for about eight to 10.

“This judge recognized that the government put liars on the stand to testify and convict other people,’’ London said.

Engelhardt heard several hours of arguments and testimony earlier Wednesday from prosecutors, defense lawyers, relatives of shooting victims, and the officers. Ronald Madison, 40, who was mentally disabled, and James Brissette, 17, died in the shootings.

“This has been a long and painful 6 1/2 years,’’ said Madison’s brother, Lance. “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 coverup: “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.

The Rev. Robert Faulcon Sr. told the judge his son “didn’t go looking for trouble.’’

“He was on duty and he was called to do a job, and that’s what he did to the best of his ability,’’ the elder Faulcon said.

None of the officers addressed the court before they were sentenced.

Twenty current or former New Orleans police officers have been charged in a series of Justice Department probes, most of which center on actions during the aftermath of Katrina. Eleven of those officers were charged in the Danziger Bridge case, which stunned a city with a long history of police corruption.

Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, leading to the collapse of levees and flooding an estimated 80 percent of the city.

New Orleans was plunged into chaos as residents who had not evacuated were driven from their homes to whatever high places they could find.

Officers who worked in the city at the time but were not charged in the bridge case told Engelhardt Wednesday of the lawlessness that followed the flood and said they feared for their lives.

On the morning of Sept. 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.

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