Officers Convicted In Post-Katrina Shooting Case

In New Orleans, a jury has convicted five current and former police officers in a high-profile shooting case. The incidents happened in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and led to shootings of unarmed civilians on a bridge and a subsequent cover up.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Today in New Orleans, a jury found five current and former police officers guilty of federal civil rights violations in the shootings of unarmed citizens on the Danziger Bridge. Those shootings happened nearly six years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The jury decided that despite the chaos and lawlessness that followed the storm, police officers did not have the right to abuse their positions of public trust. From New Orleans, NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT: The packed courtroom sat in stunned silence as the stern federal judge, Kurt Engelhardt, read the jury's decision on the 25 counts against the officers: guilty of civil rights violations in the death of 17-year-old James Brisette, shot in the back of the head, and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, shot in the back; guilty of depriving the rights of four unarmed survivors who lay cowering on the concrete bridge, crying and praying as officers rake them with rifle fire at close range; guilty of falsely prosecuting two men who are also innocent victims on the bridge that day who the police tried to frame as gunmen; guilty of obstruction of justice in an elaborate cover-up of their misdeeds that included falsifying evidence, fabricating witnesses and planting a handgun.

Several policemen wept as the verdicts were read. The only thing the jury did not convict them of was murder, which requires malice and forethought. After the verdict announced at noon today, Lance Madison stood in the sweltering sun outside the federal building and read a statement. He was one of those falsely accused of shooting at police officers. He spent weeks in a makeshift prison before charges were dropped. His brother Ronald, mentally disabled and said to have the temperament of a child, was killed.

LANCE MADISON: I am thankful for having some closure after six long years of struggling for justice. Without the support of and hard work of my family, I might still be in prison for false charges and the truth about what happened on the Danziger Bridge might have never have known - been known. We will never be completely healed because we will never have Ronald Madison back.

BURNETT: After Lance Madison spoke, Sherrel Johnson stepped forward. She's the mother of James Brissette, the other fatality.

SHERREL JOHNSON: I have been robbed of raising him because he was only 17. There is nothing for James. Nothing. No schooling, no prom, no first call, no (unintelligible), no nothing. My child will never have nothing.

BURNETT: Some of the most damaging testimony came from five police officers who pled guilty. Some of them testified for the prosecution and gave eyewitness accounts of the unjustified shootings and the cover-up. Defense attorneys argued throughout the six-week trial that police responding to an officer in distress call on the bridge, which turned out to be false, only shot at the civilians because the police thought they were under fire themselves. The defense argued strenuously the officers should not be found guilty because of the turmoil and lawlessness that existed after the city flooded. U.S. attorney Jim Letten had this to say about that defense.

JIM LETTEN: If we can't depend on the men and women of law enforcement to protect us, to protect our rights, to act with dignity and restraint, and aggressively when they need to, but fairly, who can we count on? When our society is threatened, when a storm has damaged our society's ability to function normally, if we can't depend on them, who do we depend on?

BURNETT: Today, four officers were found guilty of shootings and one was found guilty of orchestrating the cover-up. Under federal law, a civil rights violation leading to death is punishable by up to life in prison. The judge said he will sentence the defendants in December. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu released this statement: The verdicts in the Danziger Bridge trial provides significant closure to a dark chapter in our city's history. We now have an opportunity to turn the page and to heal. John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.

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