Case Of Post-Katrina Police Shootings Thrown Out

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A judge has thrown out charges against six New Orleans police officers and a former officer accused in fatal shootings on a bridge in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The shootings left two men dead and four others wounded.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A judge has thrown out murder charges against seven New Orleans police officers who were on duty after Hurricane Katrina. The cops killed two people and wounded others.

The civilians were crossing a New Orleans bridge. Police said they were firing in self-defense, though the victims claimed to unarmed.

NPR's John Burnett has covered this story since it happened in 2005. And John, what led the judge to dismiss these charges?

JOHN BURNETT: Steve, the prosecutor in the case - first of all, there were a couple of big mistakes. He showed testimony from a grand jury transcript to a police officer who was a witness in the case, and he wasn't supposed to do that. Grand jury testimony is supposed to be secret.

The same prosecutor offered immunity from prosecution to three police officers if they would testify before the grand jury, and then those policemen were later indicted.

So there were problems, and the next D.A. acknowledged them. She conceded in a letter that I saw. She said, my office bears responsibility for the position we're in now.

INSKEEP: Okay, so we don't have a finding that the officers are innocent - or guilty, for that matter. We have a screwed-up prosecution. Let's get back to the facts as they're known. What did happen on this bridge, as best we can determine?

BURNETT: Well, Steve, the facts are still hair-raising. It was on a Sunday morning, five days after the storm. Civilians are walking across a big bridge over the industrial canal in East New Orleans. They say they're looking to buy some food at a store that's open.

Remember that civil order in the city has disintegrated by this time. There's open looting. There's a lot of weapons on the street. The police feel embattled.

So a police call comes in: There's civilians shooting at rescuers and police. Police rush to the bridge. There's a fire fight. I heard the audiotape myself. There's gunfire coming from two directions.

When it's over, two of the civilians are dead. One of them is a 40-year-old, mentally retarded man named Ronald Madison. The medical examiner finds five gunshot wounds in his back.

The other dead man is a 19-year-old high-school senior. His name's James Brissette. Four other people are left severely wounded from the gunfire. One of them has a - a teenager has a colostomy bag today. Another one had her arm shot off.

So both sides say the other is to blame. The police did its own investigation of the incident, and they say that they are vindicated in the officers' actions. But around town, it's considered a whitewash.

So all these questions are still unanswered. And now that the judge has dismissed the case, there's a question - who knows whether they'll ever be answered.

INSKEEP: Are New Orleans residents surprised that the judge threw out this case?

BURNETT: Not at all. Everyone knew that these indictments had big problems, both the defense attorneys and the prosecutors themselves.

In the first place, the district attorney at the time, Eddie Jordan, was very aggressive in seeking these first-degree murder charges against the police, and there was a question whether he was going to be able to follow through with them in the courtroom. But then, as I explained, everybody knew that the prosecution had made serious mistakes in even getting these indictments.

INSKEEP: John, I'm still thinking about that evidence that you laid out, contradictory evidence - the tape of bullets coming from two directions, but also the evidence of bullets in civilians' backs. Is this case going to get before a jury at some point?

BURNETT: That's a really important question. The D.A.'s office, the current D.A., says it reserves the right to appeal. I saw a letter yesterday. It was written earlier this month by the recent outgoing D.A., Keva Landrum.

She has asked U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey to turn the case over to his federal civil rights' section and take it out of state court entirely. We don't know whether that's going to happen or not. And then there's still three federal civil-rights lawsuits that have been filed by survivors' families, charging the police gunned down unarmed, innocent citizens on the Danziger Bridge that morning.

INSKEEP: John, thanks very much.

BURNETT: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett giving us the latest on a criminal case in New Orleans against the police. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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