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5 former New Orleans cops get stiff sentences in Katrina bridge shootings, cover-up

Mario Tama / Getty Images file

The Danziger Bridge in New Orleans was the site of a deadly shooting of unarmed civilians by police officers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Five former New Orleans police officers were sentenced to long prison terms Wednesday for their roles in the shootings at a bridge that left two civilians dead and four others wounded in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

A federal judge sentenced four of the officers convicted of participating in the shootings to terms ranging from 38 years to 65 years, according to local media reports. The fifth officer received six years for covering up the killings.

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt called it “a sad day for New Orleans” and also criticized the plea bargains that other officers got in exchange for cooperating with the government, NOLA.com reported.

"Using liars to convict liars is no way to pursue justice," Engelhardt said, according to NOLA.com.

The Justice Department hailed the lengthy sentences in a case that shed a national spotlight on New Orleans police corruption as testament that “no one is above the law."

“We hope that today’s sentences give a measure of peace and closure to the victims of this terrible shooting, who have suffered unspeakable pain and who have waited so patiently for justice to be done,” Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in a statement. “The officers who shot innocent people on the bridge and then went to great lengths to cover up their own crimes have finally been held accountable for their actions. As a result of today’s sentencing, the city of New Orleans can take another step forward.”

Kenneth Bowen, 38; Robert Gisevius, 39; Anthony Villavaso, 35; and Robert Faulcon, 48, were convicted in August of civil-rights violations and firearms and other charges in the shootings, according to The Associated Press. Retired Sgt. Arthur "Archie" Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shootings, was convicted of helping orchestrate the cover-up.

Faulcon received the stiffest sentence, 65 years. Bowen and Gisevius each got 40 years, and Villavaso got 38 years. Kaufman got the lightest sentence, six years.

Sean Gardner / Reuters

Sherrel Johnson, mother of James Brissette Jr., who was killed on the Danziger Bridge, is hugged by Rev. Aubrey Johnson after the sentencing of former New Orleans police officers on Wednesday.

Bowen, Gisevius, Villavaso and Faulcon were among about a dozen officers who responded to a radio call that someone was shooting at police near the Danziger Bridge in east New Orleans on Sept. 4, 2005. That was less than a week after Katrina made landfall, swamping a good part of the city and leading to televised scenes of looting and lawlessness in some neighborhoods.

Witnesses testified that the officers jumped out of a truck and fired with AK-47s and shotguns at unarmed civilians walking on the bridge.

The officers later claimed they shot only after being threatened or fired on and that they had seen weapons in the victims' hands.

Prosecutors said the people on the bridge were families seeking food.

Read local coverage on WDSU.com

A New Orleans couple, their daughter and their nephew were among those wounded, and a family friend, James Brissette, 17, was killed.  He was shot in the back, the leg, both arms and the back of the head, and died on the bridge, according to the Justice Department.

At a second shooting a few minutes later on the west side of the bridge, Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man with severe mental and physical disabilities, was shot  in the back while running away. He died near the base of the bridge. 

Kaufman, the lead investigator in the case, retired from the force in May 2011. He planted a gun at the scene and helped falsify official reports of the shootings, according to media reports.

The sentencing came after a morning of testimony from victims of the shootings as well as family members and friends of the former police officers.

Lance Madison told the court his brother Ronald was "gunned down and killed without mercy" by police that day, NOLA.com reported.

Madison told the five former officers: "You are the reason I can no longer trust law enforcement," according to NOLA.com.

Five other former NOPD officers who pleaded guilty before trial, admitting that they had participated in a conspiracy to obstruct justice and cover-up, were all sentenced previously. They got prison terms ranging from three years to eight years.

Information from NOLA.com., WDSU.com and The Associated Press is included in this report.

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