New Orleans Police On Trial For Katrina Killings

Opening statements began on Monday in New Orleans, where five current and former police officers are on trial for their alleged roles in shooting innocent civilians in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina. The officers also are accused of trying to cover up the incident.

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Now to a federal court in New Orleans, where an explosive police abuse case is under way. The Justice Department is prosecuting five police officers for their roles in allegedly shooting down innocent civilians in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina, and then concocting an elaborate cover-up.

NPR's John Burnett was there for opening statements and has this report.

JOHN BURNETT: The United States is putting on trial five of the six New Orleans police officers for, among other charges, criminally violating the civil rights of storm survivors on the Danziger Bridge.

Lead prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein told the jury the police shot first and asked questions later, and then lied to cover it up. Two victims died and four were wounded - none had a weapon. A succession of defense attorneys stepped forward to say the government's case is a fairy tale; that the cops are not criminals, they're heroes for staying, doing their jobs, and protecting the city in horrible circumstances.

The most dramatic moment came Monday afternoon, when the first witness for the prosecution stood to be sworn in. Afterwards, the city's independent police monitor, Susan Hutson, reflecting on the moment.

Ms. SUSAN HUTSON (Independent Police Monitor): Susan Bartholomew gets up there, and they're asking her to raise her right hand. Well, it's not there anymore. In fact, her whole arm is gone. Her whole right arm is missing. And so that was just really - just something that got me in the gut.

BURNETT: Bartholomew's right arm was shot off by a police officer during the incident. Defense attorney Lindsay Larson said: It was a tragedy for everyone involved, a horrible, regrettable mistake, but it's not a federal crime.

To recap the basic facts: It was September 4, 2005, six days after the levees failed and the city flooded. Two groups of individuals, growing desperate, were making their way across the concrete bridge that spans the industrial canal in east New Orleans. One group was trying to get to a supermarket, for cleaning supplies and food. The other was headed over the bridge to get rescued.

Police received a 108 call - civilians were shooting at cops near the bridge, and two officers were down. They hopped in a commandeered Budget rental truck, raced to the scene and bailed out, shooting. Four of the police defendants are charged with shooting unarmed citizens. One is charged with orchestrating the cover-up.

The prosecutor, Bernstein, says police caught up to a mentally and physically disabled, 40-year-old man named Ronald Madison, who was trotting down the bridge, and who they thought had been shooting at them. Bernstein gripped an imaginary shotgun to her shoulder, and faced the jury. Boom, she said. Without warning or provocation, an officer shot him in the back. The 16 jurors flinched. Ronald Madison died at the scene.

Bernstein concluded her 75-minute monologue: They rode onto the Danziger and cut loose with assault weapons and a shotgun. They assumed everybody on the bridge was a bad guy. Everybody was fair game.

Defense lawyers told the jury that the stressed-out officers had every reason to believe civilians on the bridge that Sunday morning were bad guys. The city had become lawless. At night, the darkened neighborhoods echoed with gunfire. Consider the defendants had been living for six days without adequate food, shelter, clothing, rest, support or leadership.

Defense attorney Tim Mesh: There was no time to go out and assess the situation. My client thought people were shooting at him. Lawyer Eric Hessler: Cops aren't perfect. They're not tactical experts. Attorney Paul Fleming, speaking of the civilian victims: Some people are at the wrong place at the wrong time. Two people were killed. That's unfortunate.

City police monitor Susan Hutson, who spoke outside the Hale Boggs Federal Building after the trial adjourned for the day, says she thought the defense did a good job of explaining the post-Katrina turmoil.

Ms. HUTSON: They still have a duty to look at what they're firing at. They still have a duty to make sure that their shots are accurate. But it does give you a sense of what was going on. They thought officers were down and injured. So it did show - they did a good job of painting a picture of the chaos.

BURNETT: The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks. The prosecution will call more shooting victims to the stand, as well as some of the five New Orleans police officers who have pled guilty. They're expected to describe, in detail, the unprovoked shootings and the alleged cover-up.

John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.

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