Case Falters Against Cops in Katrina Shootings

Ronald Madison, with one of his family's dogs, died after being shot on the Danziger Bridge.

Ronald Madison, (shown with one of his family's dogs), died after being shot on the Danziger Bridge in the days after Hurricane Katrina. Officer Robert Faulcon, charged with first-degree murder in Madison's death, says he shot the victim with a shotgun when Madison turned toward the officer and reached into his waistband. Madison's sister says her little brother was mentally challenged and wouldn't have known what to do with a gun. Courtesy Madison Family hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Madison Family

In Depth

NPR first reported on the Danziger Bridge shootings in September 2006. Explore that investigative report and follow-up story:

In December, seven New Orleans police officers were indicted for the allegedly unprovoked shooting of two civilians in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina. The case sparked national outrage, but because of prosecutorial legal missteps, it might never get before a jury.

Five days after Katrina, the New Orleans police killed two civilians and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge, which connects two predominantly black neighborhoods that were flooded by the storm.

The officers were responding to an "officer down" call and spotted two groups of individuals walking up the east side of the concrete bridge. The police say the citizens were shooting at them, and that they returned fire.

The people involved in the incident — who have all filed federal lawsuits — say the police opened fire unprovoked. James Brissette, a 19-year-old high-school dropout, and Ronald Madison, described by his family as mentally challenged, were killed. No recovered weapons have been linked to the groups on the bridge.

The seven police officers have been indicted for murder and attempted murder, but legal experts say the case against the officers has problems.

The Officers' Defense

Since the indictments in late December, the officers have marshaled a legal team that is aggressively challenging the victims' account.

Frank DeSalvo, a longtime police defense attorney, says, "If any police officer did, in fact, kill anyone, it was all in the line of duty, at a time of extreme stress, when the city was under martial law. These people had guns. They were shooting. There's independent evidence of it; it's not just police testimony."

DeSalvo was asked how a mentally challenged man could get five gunshots in the back "in the line of duty."

"That is one shotgun blast, " he answered. "Those are individual shotgun pellets from one shell that was fired. The coroner says that."

Officer Robert Faulcon, charged with first-degree murder in the death of Ronald Madison, says he shot the victim with a shotgun when Madison turned toward the officer and reached into his waistband. DeSalvo says the victim was shot in the back because the gunfight was fluid and people were moving.

Defending the Victims

Ronald's sister, Lorna Madison Humphrey, a New Orleans environmental engineer, says her little brother wouldn't have known what to do with a gun.

"Ronald was a very caring, loving young man," she says. "He had a child's mentality. He enjoyed watching cartoons; he enjoyed listening to music. He lived a sheltered life."

That day, Ronald Madison was under the care of his older brother, Lance, who the police also contend was shooting at them. Lance, who has no criminal record, was initially arrested and jailed for the attempted murder of police officers, but a grand jury declined to indict him.

"We would like those responsible for killing Ronald, and turning Lance's life upside down, to be held accountable," says Humphrey. "There's no one that should endure this."

Questioning the Charges

Members of the New Orleans Police Department are not infrequently in trouble with the law that they're sworn to enforce. Just in the past week, an ex-cop pleaded guilty to robbing a French Quarter massage parlor. In a separate case, a grand jury indicted an officer for aggravated rape and kidnapping; he allegedly threatened to arrest prostitutes unless they had sex with him.

But there has been criticism that the district attorney went overboard in charging most of the officers in the Danziger Bridge case with first-degree murder. Professor Dane Ciolino, a criminal law expert at Loyola Law School in New Orleans, says a more reasonable charge would have been negligent homicide.

"These officers should not have shot at these individuals," he says. "But I think most people believe that, if anything, they were negligent. They certainly didn't have the motive to go out and kill anyone. This was not a case, as we've had in New Orleans, where police officers have been drug dealers and gone out and intentionally killed witnesses."

The Police Association of New Orleans has also weighed in on the case. The president, Lt. Mike Glasser, says, "I would have to believe that seven officers, supervisors and patrolmen, would get together, would go to this incident and decide to shoot unarmed citizens for no reason, and then concoct a rather un-elaborate cover story to cover it. I find that perfectly ridiculous to accept."

Problems With the Case

It's not certain that a judge and jury will get to decide who was guilty and who was innocent on the Danziger Bridge that morning. Legal experts say prosecutors have already made a serious misstep. They offered immunity to three of the officers to testify before the grand jury, then turned around and got indictments against them.

Defense attorneys argued strenuously that immunized testimony cannot be used to incriminate a defendant. Last week, a judge gave the lawyers for the police a tactical victory and let them review the entire grand jury testimony.

Loyola professor Ciolino says that's invaluable for the defense. Prosecution of the Danziger Bridge case has, so far, provided him several "teachable moments."

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