A federal judge sentenced five former police officers to years in prison for the deadly shootings on a New Orleans bridge in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina, but not before lashing out at prosecutors for allowing others involved to receive lighter penalties for their crimes.
The case that wrapped up Wednesday was the centerpiece of a Justice Department push to clean up the New Orleans Police Department, which has long been tainted with corruption.
U.S. District Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt expressed frustration that he was bound by mandatory minimum sentencing laws to imprison former Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius and former officers Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon for decades when other officers who engaged in similar conduct on the Danziger Bridge -- but cut deals with prosecutors -- are serving no more than eight years behind bars.
"These through-the-looking-glass plea deals that tied the hands of this court are an affront to the court and a disservice to the community," he said.
Police gunned down James Brissette, 17, and Ronald Madison, 40, who were both unarmed, and wounded four others Sept. 4, 2005, less than a week after the storm devastated New Orleans. To cover it up, the officers planted a gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports. Defense attorneys have indicated they will appeal.
Engelhardt also criticized prosecutors for the different ways they charged those who didn't cooperate with a Justice Department civil rights investigation and those who did. The charges were filed in such a way that they left judges with little discretion in imposing the sentences, Engelhardt said.
Faulcon received the stiffest sentence: 65 years. Bowen and Gisevius each got 40 years, while Villavaso was sentenced to 38. All four were convicted of federal firearms charges that carried mandatory minimum sentences ranging from 35 to 60 years. Faulcon was convicted in both deadly shootings.
Retired Sgt. Arthur "Archie" Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shootings, received six years in prison -- a sentence below the federal guidelines. Kaufman wasn't charged in the shootings but was convicted of helping orchestrate the cover-up.
During a scathing lecture that lasted roughly two hours, Engelhardt questioned the credibility of officers who cut deals and testified against the defendants in last year's trial.
"Citing witnesses for perjury at this trial would be like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500," Engelhardt said.
Justice Department attorney Bobbi Bernstein defended prosecutors' tactics, saying the officers who cooperated gave them the breakthrough they needed to reveal the cover-up.
"This has been a long and painful 6 1/2 years," said Lance Madison, whose mentally disabled brother, Ronald, was killed. "The people of New Orleans and my family are ready for justice."
He addressed each defendant individually, including Faulcon, who shot his brother: "When I look at you, my pain becomes unbearable. You took the life of an angel and basically ripped my heart out."