NEW ORLEANS – A man who survived a police shooting on a New Orleans bridge in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath says he already was wounded and lying on the ground when somebody leaned over a concrete barrier and shot him twice in the stomach at close range.
Testifying Wednesday at the federal trial of five current or former officers, Jose Holmes Jr. said he didn't know police were shooting at him, a friend and several relatives as they tried to cross the Danzinger Bridge in search of food less than a week after the devastating 2005 storm. Holmes, now 25, said the officers didn't identify themselves or issue any warnings before they opened fire.
Holmes said he was lying down on his side behind the barrier when he was shot in his left arm. When a man leaned over the barrier and pointed the barrel of a gun at his stomach, Holmes said he looked away.
"I tried to brace myself for the shot, kind of tightened my stomach up," he said. "Then he shot me twice. ... I paced my breathing because I thought if I panicked, I might die."
Holmes recalled praying to survive and thinking, "Man, they really want me dead."
His friend, 17-year-old James Brissette, was shot and killed by police on the east side of the bridge. His aunt, Susan Bartholomew, lost her arm in the shooting. Holmes' uncle and a cousin also were wounded. Police also shot and killed 40-year-old Ronald Madison, a mentally disabled man, on the west side of the bridge. Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius, Officer Anthony Villavaso and former officer Robert Faulcon are charged in the shootings. Retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shootings, is charged with covering up what happened.
Holmes said no one in his group was armed that morning.
"Did you see anyone shoot at the police that day?" Justice Department attorney Barbara Bernstein asked.
"No, ma'am," the soft-spoken, reed-thin Holmes responded.
Earlier Wednesday, however, a police officer whose frantic radio call led to the deadly encounter on the bridge said she heard gunfire and saw two armed men before she summoned help.
Officer Jennifer Dupree, a government witness, said she saw two men with guns running away while she and other officers were on a high-rise bridge that runs parallel to the Danziger.
Prosecutors say officers who responded to Dupree's distress call shot unarmed people who never posed a threat. Defense attorneys have claimed the officers only opened fire after they were shot at, possibly by people who weren't shot or apprehended.
On the morning of Sept. 4, 2005, less than a week after Katrina's landfall, Dupree and other officers were driving east on the Interstate 10 high-rise bridge over the Industrial Canal when they saw a caravan of vehicles parked on the highway. A man wearing a St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Office shirt flagged the officers down.
"Get down! They're shooting at us!" the man yelled, according to Dupree.
Dupree said she heard several shots, got out of her vehicle, looked over the side of the bridge and saw four men, two of whom had guns. After making the radio call, Dupree said she saw the two men with guns running toward the Danziger Bridge. She said she didn't fire at them because they were too far away and had their backs turned to her.
"They weren't a threat to me," she said.
Prosecutors say police plotted to plant a gun, fabricate witnesses and falsify reports to make the shootings appear justified. Five former officers have pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up.
Holmes, whose testimony is scheduled to resume Thursday, was shot in the stomach, jaw, arm, abdomen and elbow. At the prosecution's direction, he lifted his shirt and showed jurors his gruesome scars.
Holmes said a nurse who treated him in the hospital "kept insinuating that I was shooting at helicopters." Unable to speak at the time, he said he merely shook his head, figuring she got that idea from police.
"But she still took really good care of you?" Bernstein asked.
"Yes, ma'am," he said.
Gisevius' attorney, Eric Hessler, asked Holmes if he recalled telling the FBI that the man who shot him in the stomach jumped over the barrier rather than leaned over. Prosecutors have said Bowen leaned over the barrier and fired shots at wounded people.
"What is the truth?" Hessler asked.
"What I remember is someone leaning over and shooting me in my stomach," Holmes said.