A legal journey that was set off more than a decade ago with the shooting of unarmed citizens by police officers in the desperate days after Hurricane Katrina wound toward a close on Wednesday when five former officers pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy, obstruction of justice and civil rights charges.
The plea agreements drew prison terms from three to 12 years. Those sentences were significantly shorter than those handed down when the men were convicted five years ago in verdicts that were later thrown out.
But the agreements were supported by the families of the victims and brought some degree of conclusion to a nearly 11-year endeavor that in ways presaged the current struggles over police and accountability in places like Baltimore, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo.
“Today is the first day of the rest of my life,” Sherrel Johnson, the mother of 17-year-old James Brisette, one of the two people who were killed in the shootings, told reporters after the hearing. “Someone confessed ‘I did it. I did it.’ And that did my heart all the good in the world.”
The officers — Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius, Officer Anthony Villavaso and Officer Robert Faulcon, as well as a detective, Arthur Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shooting — were initially indicted on state charges in 2007. But from there the case would be undergo years of troubles and reversals, eventually becoming drawn into a scandal in the federal prosecutors’ office here that took down the local United States attorney.
The Danziger case was one of several federal prosecutions of police officers for killings in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with 18 current and former officers facing charges at one point. These cases did not find an easy path in the courts; the prosecution of another high-profile police shooting, that of Henry Glover, ended mostly in acquittals.
But the cases did prompt the United States Justice Department to examine the city’s police force as a whole, and in 2012, the force was brought under a federally mandated consent decree, a court-administered blueprint for an overhaul of the department’s practices. That consent decree remains in place.
“Serving as an officer is one of the most complex and difficult jobs in our society,” Kenneth A. Polite Jr., the current United States attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, said at a news conference after the hearing. “At the same time, when individuals ignore their oath of office, and instead violate the civil rights of the public they are sworn to serve, they will be held accountable.”
The case began on Sept. 4, 2005, in a city still without order and drowning in floodwaters. Two groups of families and friends, all of them black, were crossing the Danziger bridge in search of food and relatives when police officers rushed to the scene in a Budget rental truck. The officers, responding to a distress call, opened fire with shotguns and AK-47s, sending those on the bridge, all of whom were unarmed, diving and running for cover.
Four people were severely injured — one woman lost part of her arm — and two were killed: James Brisette, and Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old developmentally disabled man who took a shotgun blast in the back.
The state indicted seven officers, but that indictment was dismissed for improprieties involving the grand jury. Six were then charged by federal prosecutors in 2010, and the next year five of them went to trial together. (The case of a retired sergeant, Gerard Dugue, was severed from the others. He is still waiting for a new trial after an earlier mistrial.)
At the federal trial of the five officers, defense lawyers emphasized that the men were rushing to the bridge under the belief — mistaken, as it turned out — that a policeman had been shot, and that under the extreme circumstances of the time, they should not be harshly judged. But prosecution witnesses, including other officers at the scene who had pleaded guilty, said officers had fired without warning and immediately after the shootings began to construct what would become an elaborate cover-up.
All of the men were found guilty and faced sentences of six to 65 years. At their sentencing, however, Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt of Federal District Court delivered a lengthy speech condemning the prosecution for its plea deals and its use of problematic witnesses, and deploring the mandatory minimum sentences he was forced to impose.
Two years later, he threw out the convictions, citing a scandal that had been unfolding in the local United States attorney’s office, involving senior prosecutors who had anonymously commented under online articles in the local media about cases on trial. Describing his own investigation into the scandal and his frustration with the Justice Department’s internal investigation, Judge Engelhardt insisted that the Danziger case be retried.
His disdain for the Justice Department at the 2011 trial that was still on stark display on Wednesday, when the judge said that the Danziger case “might most be remembered by the jiggery-pokery” of the prosecutors.
A panel of appeals court judges upheld Judge Engelhardt’s order for a new trial last year. In recent weeks, the lawyers from the Justice Department withdrew, which Judge Engelhardt deemed necessary for the case to move forward.
Under the terms of Wednesday’s deal, the four officers involved in the shooting received sentences ranging from seven to 12 years, with credit for time served. The fifth man, Mr. Kaufman, who was accused in the cover-up, got three years.
“This has been a terrible ordeal for our family, our friends and our community,” said Lance Madison, who was arrested — under false pretenses — by officers on the bridge just minutes after one of them shot and killed his younger brother Ronald., “I’m thankful that our mother is still with us and is able to see justice being served, and for these officers to finally be held accountable for their crimes. I hope and pray that no other family ever has to go through what we have gone through.”
*Originally published on New York Times.