STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's check back in now on a painful episode from Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans police killed two civilians and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge in the chaotic days after the storm. Survivors of that shooting claim they were targeted by trigger-happy police. The officers contend they were fighting hoodlums for control of a lawless city.

Those seven police officers have been indicted for murder and attempted murder, but legal experts say the case against the officers has problems, as NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT: Ever since New Orleans's District Attorney Eddie Jordan announced the indicted officers that had, quote, "killed our citizens like rabid dogs," the Danziger Bridge Case has been explosive. To recap, five days after the hurricane, police responding to a call of officer down spotted two groups of individuals walking up the east side of the concrete bridge. The police claim the citizens were shooting at them and the cops returned fire.

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

Since the indictments in late December, the officers have marshaled a legal team that is aggressively challenging the victims' account. Frank DeSalvo is a longtime police defense attorney.

Mr. FRANK DESALVO (Attorney): If any police officer did, in fact, kill someone, 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.

BURNETT: How does a retarded man gets five gunshots in the back in the line of duty?

Mr. DESALVO: Okay, well, that is one shotgun blast. Those are individual shotgun pellets from one shell that was fired. The coroner says that.

BURNETT: Officer Robert Faulcon, charged with first-degree murder in the death of Ronald Madison, claims he shot him with a shotgun when Madison turned toward the officer and reached into his waistband. How was he shot in the back? DeSalvo asserts the gunfight was fluid and people were moving.

Ronald's sister, Lorna Madison Humphrey, a New Orleans environmental engineer, says her 40-year-old brother wouldn't had known what to do with a gun.

Ms. LORNA MADISON HUMPHREY (Sister of Ronald Madison): Ronald was a very caring, loving young man. He had a child's mentality. He enjoyed watching cartoons. He enjoyed listening to music. He lived a sheltered life.

BURNETT: 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 attempted murder of police officers, but a grand jury declined to indict him.

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

BURNETT: Members of the New Orleans Police Department are not infrequently in trouble with the law they're sworn to enforce. Just in the past week, an ex-cop pleaded guilty to robbing a French Quarter massage parlor. And 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 the DA went overboard in charging most of the officers in the Danziger Bridge case with first-degree murder.

Professor Dane Ciolino, of Loyola Law School in New Orleans, says a more reasonable charge would have been negligent homicide.

Professor DANE CIOLINO (Criminal Law, Loyola University): These officers should not have shot at these individuals, 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.

BURNETT: The Police Association of New Orleans has also weighed in on the case. The president is Lieutenant Mike Glasser.

Lieutenant MIKE GLASSER (President, Police Association of New Orleans): 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.

BURNETT: It's not certain that a judge and jury will get to decide who was guilty and who was innocent on the 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 criminal law professor Dane Ciolino says that was invaluable for the defense. Prosecution of the Danziger Bridge case has, so far, provided him several teachable moments.

John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.

INSKEEP: You can read an investigative report and browse some of the police accounts of what happened by going to our Web site, npr.org.

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