When jurors in what became known as the Danziger Trial returned their guilty verdicts Aug. 5, many New Orleanians described the outcome as "closure." Not quite. Recently retired NOPD Sgt. Gerard Dugue, who co-authored the official police report on the Danziger Bridge shootings in the tumultuous days after Hurricane Katrina, is scheduled to be tried next month in connection with the cover-up. Likewise, the sentencing of former NOPD Lt. Michael Lohman, who pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice and has since cooperated with federal investigators, was once again postponed last week — also until next month. This saga is far from over.
For the families of James Brissette and Ronald Madison, two unarmed civilians who were shot by NOPD officers as they attempted to walk to a grocery store in search of food and water, there can be no real closure, just the sense that justice, however delayed, has been served — to a point. Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, officer Robert Faulcon, Sgt. Robert Gisevius and officer Anthony Villavaso — who were all on the bridge that day — were found guilty of every federal charge brought against them. However, the jury did not find their actions constituted "murder."
Lance Madison, the brother of Ronald Madison, told reporters outside the courtroom, "We're thankful for closure." But Brissette's mother, Sherrel Johnson, saw it differently. "I want the word 'murder' behind their name, attached to their name," she said. "I'm not satisfied with this, and I'm not going to be satisfied with this."
For lawyers, the jury's decision not to classify the killings as murder is a technical one; jurors found that the killer cops lacked the "specific intent" required under the law to classify a homicide as a murder. For the defendants, it means they won't face automatic life sentences — though all of them face virtual life sentences behind bars. For the victims' families and the community at large, the verdict has caused many to rethink their definition of justice.
Amazingly, some people still think the cops were railroaded, a position that requires stubbornly turning a blind eye to the facts. In February 2010, Lohman pleaded guilty. U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said Lohman created false reports and witness statements and then lied to federal agents. Less than a month later, former NOPD officer Jeffrey Lehrmann pleaded guilty to misprision (concealment) of a felony. After Lehrmann's plea, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk said, "I have neither imagined or heard of more despicable conduct by law enforcement officers." Eventually three other former NOPD officers — Michael Hunter, Robert Barrios and Ignatius Hills — pleaded guilty and cooperated with federal prosecutors.
Lehrmann and Hunter's cooperation earned them three-year and eight-year prison terms, respectively — a deal that must sound good now to the five cops who were convicted Aug. 5. According to Letten, sentencing guidelines indicate that Bowen, Gisevius and Villavaso face a minimum of 35 years each in prison, while Faulcon, who was convicted of shooting Madison to death, faces 60 years behind bars. Sgt. Arthur "Archie" Kaufman, who was not on the bridge, was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, lying to the feds and falsifying evidence; he faces up to 120 years, according to Letten. All but Kaufman are being held without bond until sentencing.
Defense attorneys had pleaded a "stress defense," saying the tension and trauma in Katrina's aftermath affected the cops' judgment and behavior. Those were indeed stressful days, but the vast majority of New Orleans police officers did not kill unarmed civilians and then conspire to hide the truth immediately after the fact. Letten aptly summed up the government's response to the so-called "Katrina defense" after the verdicts came down, telling reporters, "Who can we count on when our society is threatened? If we can't depend on them, who can we depend on?"
Indeed. Cleaning up NOPD is not going to be easy, or quick, or tidy, just as the process that led to the Aug. 5 verdicts was neither easy, nor quick, nor tidy. In the end, however, the jury's "guilty on all counts" decision was resounding. And necessary — for the Madison and Brissette families as well as for all New Orleanians.