NEW ORLEANS – Twelve jurors and four alternates were picked Thursday to hear the case against five current or former police officers charged in the deadly shootings of unarmed residents on a bridge in Hurricane Katrina's chaotic aftermath.
Opening statements for the federal trial — the centerpiece of a sprawling Justice Department probe of alleged police misconduct in New Orleans — were scheduled to start Monday.
The jury of seven men and five women was selected from a pool of roughly 70 people after two days of questioning, mostly behind closed doors.
Five former officers already have pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up involving the fatal shootings of two people and wounding of four others on the Danziger Bridge after the 2005 storm's landfall.
Four other officers were indicted last year on charges stemming from the shootings, while two police investigators were charged in the alleged cover-up.
One officer is accused of fatally shooting a mentally disabled man, 40-year-old Ronald Madison, in the back on the west side of the bridge before a sergeant stomped on him. Prosecutors say the same sergeant, armed with an assault rifle, fired on wounded and unarmed people lying on the ground. Seventeen-year-old James Brissette was shot and killed on the east side of the bridge.
All of the officers on trial are accused of participating in a cover-up that allegedly included a plot to plant a gun, fabricate witnesses and falsify reports.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt questioned the jury pool about their Katrina experiences and their knowledge of the case. Nearly everybody in the courtroom raised a hand when the judge asked if they had heard about the case. Six prospective jurors raised hands when asked if they had formed an opinion on the officers' guilt or innocence.
Only one of the 12 jurors is a New Orleans resident, but five live in neighboring Jefferson Parish, which also suffered a devastating blow from Katrina. The Eastern District of Louisiana is based in New Orleans but is comprised of 13 parishes.
A prosecutor said the first witness to testify for the government after opening statements is expected to be Susan Bartholomew, who was wounded by police on the east side of the bridge.
Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius, officer Anthony Villavaso and former officer Robert Faulcon were indicted last year on charges stemming from the shootings. Two police investigators — retired Sgts. Arthur Kaufman and Gerard Dugue — were charged in the alleged cover-up. Dugue will be tried separately.
The officers have claimed they opened fire only after being shot at. They point to testimony less than a month after the shootings by Ronald Madison's brother, Lance Madison, who said a group of teenagers fired at him and his brother before they encountered police.
A total of 20 current or former New Orleans police officers were charged last year as a result of probes by the Justice Department's civil rights division. In December, a jury convicted three former officers in the death of a man shot by one officer in Katrina's aftermath before another burned his body.