Nearly six years later, the real story of what happened on the Danziger Bridge may finally come out.
On Wednesday, the biggest police abuse case in the modern history of the New Orleans Police Department gets under way. Federal prosecutors allege police officers shot and killed two unarmed civilians fleeing the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina and maimed four others. Afterward, prosecutors claim, the police engaged in an elaborate cover-up to make it look like self-defense.
Sherrel Johnson, mother of James Brisette, who was killed on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina, speaks to reporters in 2010.
Sherrel Johnson, mother of James Brisette, who was killed on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina, speaks to reporters in 2010. Gerald Herbert/AP
It was the morning of Sept. 4, 2005. The city had been underwater for six days. Civil order had broken down.
A group of police responded to a call that civilians were shooting at police and an officer was down. They raced to the Danziger Bridge, a concrete lift bridge in east New Orleans, in a rental truck, bailed out and started shooting.
This is where accounts diverge.
Some of the officers maintain they were being shot at and they were justified in returning fire. But civilians who were crossing the half-mile-long bridge that morning have a very different story.
"When I looked we were all on the ground and all you could see is blood everywhere. And everybody's just hollerin' and moanin'. Everyone been shot and in pain. I look over, my right arm was on the ground lyin' next to me. It had been shot off," Susan Bartholomew told NPR in a 2006 interview.
Bullets struck five people in the Bartholomew group. James Brisette, her 17-year-old friend, died from his wounds.
Police then proceeded over the bridge and confronted a second group of civilians they say had been shooting at them.
A FedEx employee with no criminal record named Lance Madison, then 48, described in an earlier interview with NPR how he and his younger brother, Ronald, were trying to run away from the shooting when the police showed up. Ronald, 40, was mentally and physically disabled.
"We just kept runnin' up the bridge and that's when I noticed that one of the [police] who jumped out of the truck had a rifle, pointed it towards me and my little brother, and he shot my little brother in the shoulder," Madison said.
Both Lance Madison and Susan Bartholomew are expected to testify. Michael Hunter, a former New Orleans police officer who was on the bridge that morning, is also expected to testify. In a sworn affidavit, Hunter has stated that a policeman shot the disabled Ronald Madison in the back with a shotgun as he was running away. Then, as Madison lay dying, the affidavit says, the officer began to kick him violently. Ronald Madison died from his wounds.
Hunter claims the bridge shootings were "bad shots" — a legally unjustified use of force.
Attorneys for both the defendants and the government declined to comment for this report because the trial starts this week.
Five former policemen are defendants in the trial. Hunter is one of five additional officers who pleaded guilty for their roles in helping to cover up the police shootings. They are not on trial this week. In affidavits, they describe an elaborate conspiracy that included a planted handgun, a fabricated witness, secret meetings to coordinate stories and bogus after-incident reports.
Michael Hunter Jr. shakes hands with a fellow officer in 2007 as he and six other New Orleans police officers turn themselves in.
Michael Hunter Jr. shakes hands with a fellow officer in 2007 as he and six other New Orleans police officers turn themselves in. Alex Brandon/AP
"Well, it's a very tough case for the defense because the federal government has officers who are flipping and testifying against other officers. They have covert audiotape of officers talking about the cover-up," said Dane Ciolino, criminal law professor at Loyola University Law School in New Orleans.
This is the second high-profile "Katrina case" in which the Justice Department is aggressively prosecuting New Orleans police for their actions after the storm. In December, a federal jury convicted three officers of various roles in the murder of civilian Henry Glover in the days after the storm. Court testimony showed the officers burned Glover's body, then concocted a cover-up story. Since then, a judge has ordered a new trial for one of the policemen.
In the Glover trial, defense attorneys tried to argue that the chaos after Katrina helps explain officers' actions.
"As the jury in the Glover case decided," Ciolino said, "the storm was not a license to kill."
Capt. Mike Glasser, president of the 800-member Police Association of New Orleans, agreed.
"We still have an obligation to support the Constitution. We have an obligation to exercise force and deadly force when appropriate. In spite of the scope of the devastation, those things remain in place," Glassner said.
Glasser added that if the police defendants are found guilty, they represent a tiny minority of an honorable, hard-working police force. In March, the Justice Department released a lengthy, scathing report on systemic problems inside NOPD, such as officers breaking the law with impunity, excessive use of force, illegal stops and arrests and discriminatory policing.
The department has agreed to a federally supervised consent decree to reform itself from top to bottom.
Gauging from the morning talk show on local radio station KBOK, the Danziger shootings confirm the worst fears of some citizens — that there was an "open season" on black people after Katrina.
"They don't see us as people, and this is why they do what they do. Because if you saw me as a person, you wouldn't do this to me," said one caller last week.
"So what do you think, Miss Bobbi, that this was target practice or something?" asked the host, Gerod Stevens.
"Yes, of course," the caller answered. "What else could it be?"
The host pointed out to her that though all the Danziger victims were black, half of the police on trial are black, too.
The outcome of the Danziger Bridge trial is certain to intensify calls for sweeping changes in the New Orleans Police Department.
"The department needs a cleansing like a colon cleanse," said Tamara Jackson, outreach coordinator with a local grass-roots group called Silence is Violence. "It's like the department needs a pill to purge themselves and get rid of all the bad officers."