NEW ORLEANS – Five former police officers said in court Wednesday they intend to plead guilty to lesser charges in the deadly shootings on the Danziger Bridge in the days following Hurricane Katrina.
If the guilty pleas are accepted by a judge, the ex-officers could see drastically reduced prison time. The officers were convicted in 2011 in the shootings but U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt set aside the jury's verdict two years later because of federal prosecutors' misconduct — including anonymous online comments about the case.
Four of the former officers have been locked up for nearly six years while the fifth has been out on bond. The plea deal calls for them to get credit for time served and they could be released from prison anywhere from the next one to six years.
The court hearing was still ongoing Wednesday afternoon and the judge had not yet formally accepted their guilty pleas.
On Sept. 4 2005, days after the levees failed and water swamped the city, police gunned down 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, who were both unarmed, and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge. To cover it up, the officers planted a gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports, prosecutors have said.
Police said at the time the officers were responding to a report of other officers down when they came under fire.
However, after hearing from five dozen witnesses and examining 400 pieces of evidence during a monthlong trial, a federal jury convicted the officers for opening fire and trying to cover up wrongdoing.
Former officer Robert Faulcon was sentenced to 65 years in prison; ex-Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius each received 40 years; Anthony Villavaso got 38 years; and Arthur Kaufman, now out on bond, received a six-year sentence.
Under the new plea agreement, the sentences would be significantly reduced to a range of 12 years to three years for the defendants.
A scandal involving Justice Department employees unraveled the convictions and sentences. In September 2013, the judge said the case had been tainted by "grotesque prosecutorial misconduct," including leaks to media and posting of anonymous comments by at least three government attorneys on a New Orleans newspaper's website.
Prosecutors have argued that there is no evidence the misconduct affected the verdict.