Jury Hears Closing Arguments In Post-Katrina Shooting

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Lawyers present closing arguments in an important police abuse case in New Orleans Tuesday. Officers are accused of needlessly shooting civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Melissa Block talks to NPR's John Burnett for more.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: Now to New Orleans, where a jury heard closing arguments today in a high-profile police shooting case in federal court. It goes back to the chaotic days just after Hurricane Katrina. Five officers are accused of shooting unarmed civilians as they crossed a bridge. The prosecutors say the officers also devised an elaborate cover-up.

NPR's John Burnett has been in the courtroom today, and he joins me now. And John, what are the charges that these officers are facing?

JOHN BURNETT: The charges are civil rights violations, and they include the deprivation of rights under color of law, which is the abuse of police power; obstruction of justice, the cover-up, and also conspiracy.

It all goes back to the morning of September 4th, 2005, which was almost six years ago. The city was in chaos after Hurricane Katrina. The police were responding to an officer-down call. They raced to the Danziger Bridge, which is a big concrete lift bridge in east New Orleans. And they were in a commandeered Budget rental truck. When they arrive at the bridge, they bail out of this big, windowless panel truck and just start shooting.

At that moment there were two unarmed families that were walking over the bridge. They were all African-Americans. As a result of the police shooting, two men die - 17 years old and 40 years old - both dead from shotgun blasts to their backs, and four victims are seriously wounded. The lives of both of these families were devastated by this incident.

BLOCK: So closing arguments in this federal trial today, and let's start with the prosecution. What was their final message to the jury?

BURNETT: Well, first of all, the strongest witnesses that they based, really, their whole case on were - was the testimony of other police officers, the five cops who pled guilty. And they gave eyewitness accounts of their abuse of authority. And so what the government alleges is that the police on the bridge that morning bailed out of the truck, shooting like cowboys. They first should have assessed the situation. They shouldn't have abandoned their police training.

Prosecutor Theodore Carter said - in court - they thought because of Katrina, no one was watching and they could do what they wanted. It never occurred to them they were destroying two innocent families. They decided to teach people who they thought were shooting at police a lesson.

And then when the police realized they had shot innocent people, the government also charges they concocted an elaborate cover-up that all the defendants participated in, to a greater or lesser degree. The cover-up included false police reports, planting a weapon, and then falsely prosecuting two of the men on the bridge for shooting at police. And those charges were later dropped.

BLOCK: OK, those are the claims from the government. How is the defense for the police officers going about countering those charges?

BURNETT: From the beginning, defense attorneys have argued that officers are not guilty because they thought these people on the bridge, who turned out to be unarmed, were shooting at the police. Therefore, there was no malice or forethought, which are required in a guilty verdict. And they also say, you have to consider the circumstances at the time.

New Orleans was flooded; law and order had melted away; the police who had not abandoned their posts were working on their own without supplies, support, leadership; and that the officers on the Danziger Bridge that morning had to make split-second, life-and-death decisions. And so the defense argues the shooting on the bridge was justifiable and reasonable, though tragic and unfortunate for the victims.

BLOCK: That's NPR's John Burnett, reporting from New Orleans. John, thanks very much.

BURNETT: It's been a pleasure.

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