A federal jury Friday convicted five current or former police officers in deadly shootings on a New Orleans bridge after Hurricane Katrina, a high-profile victory for the Justice Department in its push to clean up the city's troubled police department.
A total of 20 current or former New Orleans police officers were charged last year in a series of federal probes. Most of the cases center on actions during the aftermath of the Aug. 29, 2005 storm, which plunged the flooded city into a state of lawlessness and desperation.
Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, Officer Anthony Villavaso and former officer Robert Faulcon were convicted of civil rights violations in the shootings that killed two people and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge less than a week after the storm. They face possible life prison sentences.
Retired Sgt. Arthur "Archie" Kaufman and the other four men also were convicted of engaging in a brazen cover-up that included a planted gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports. The five men were convicted of all 25 counts they faced.
Shaun Clarke, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who moved from New Orleans to Houston after Katrina, said the verdicts are "critically important" to the Justice Department's reform efforts.
"It's a huge verdict for the government," he said. "Of all the cases concerning alleged misconduct by police officers after Katrina, this was the one that had the highest national profile."
Faulcon was found guilty of fatally shooting Ronald Madison, 40, a mentally disabled man, but the jury decided his killing didn't amount to murder. Faulcon, Gisevius, Bowen and Villavaso were convicted in the death of 17-year-old James Brissette.
Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the deadly encounter on the bridge, wasn't charged in the shootings.
Five former officers pleaded guilty to participating in cover-up of the bridge shootings and testified during the trial. Another former officer, retired Sgt. Gerard Dugue, has a separate trial scheduled to start in September.
Prosecutors said police had no justification for shooting unarmed, defenseless people trying to cross the bridge in search of food and help mere days after Katrina struck.
Defense attorneys argued, however, that police were shot at on the bridge before they returned fire.