Trial opens for La. officers charged in shootings

The first day of jury selection ended Wednesday without anyone seated to hear the case of five current or former New Orleans police officers charged in the deadly shootings of unarmed people on a bridge in Hurricane Katrina's chaotic aftermath.

For more than five hours, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt and attorneys questioned prospective jurors individually behind closed doors. The jury pool is set to return Thursday for more questioning.

Still, Engelhardt told the jury pool they were making good progress.

"I'm very confident that we will complete this process (Thursday)," he said.

Earlier Wednesday, roughly 70 potential jurors were questioned in open court about their Katrina experiences and their knowledge of the case in which two people were fatally shot and four others wounded after the 2005 storm. The shootings happened on the Danziger Bridge less than a week after levee failures during the storm flooded 80 percent of the city.

When Engelhardt asked the assembled pool whether they had heard anything about the case, almost all of them raised their hands, and about a half dozen raised hands when asked if they had formed an opinion on the officers' guilt or innocence.

During questioning about Katrina, one jury pool member said the Coast Guard rescued him from the city. Several others said they had relatives who had to be rescued.

Five former officers already have pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up to make it appear that police were justified in the shootings.

Four other officers — 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 trial for the other five indicted officers is expected to last up to eight weeks.

Engelhardt read a list of about 170 potential witnesses, including two former police chiefs, Eddie Compass and Warren Riley.

One of the potential witnesses listed by Kaufman's attorney is James Youngman, who was named in a police report as a civilian who witnessed part of the shootings. Prosecutors, however, claim Youngman was an imaginary person Kaufman fabricated as part of the alleged cover-up.

In a court filing Tuesday, prosecutors asked Engelhardt to order Kaufman's attorney to provide identifying information that would allow them to interview Youngman, if he exists. In response, Kaufman's lawyer said his client denies fabricating Youngman but says the government has the burden of proving he doesn't exist.

The case is one of several Justice Department probes of alleged misconduct by New Orleans police officers. Last year, a jury convicted three current or former officers in the death of a 31-year-old man who was shot by a police officer in Katrina's aftermath before another officer burned his body.