By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Officer Ignatius Hills said he jumped out of the rental truck after the shooting stopped and scanned the blood-covered bodies on the ground - civilians who had allegedly shot at the police moments earlier - and wondered aloud where their guns were.
Sgt. Kenneth Bowen heard him and answered "that he had kicked the guns off the bridge," Hills told jurors in a New Orleans courtroom on Thursday.
So began a web of deceit, federal prosecutors say, that stretched for years after the slaying of two civilians by police in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Four others were injured in the September 2005 shooting.
The U.S. Justice Department has charged New Orleans police officers Kenneth Bowen, Robert Faulcon, Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavaso and Arthur Kaufman with 25 counts of depriving citizens of civil rights, using a weapon in committing a crime, and obstruction of justice.
Defense attorneys argue that in the hysteria and trauma following the hurricane and flooding, police were doing their best to keep the peace that day and believed they were being fired upon.
Hills is one of five officers who have pleaded guilty to a role in the incident on the Danziger bridge.
During Thursday's testimony, Hills told jurors that he could feel his adrenalin surge as he clutched his Glock 40-caliber handgun in the back of the Budget rental truck, as he and other officers responded to a report of shots fired on police.
When the truck slowed past the base of the Danziger bridge, he recalled, shots rang out.
Hills said he caught sight of a man running past the truck and took aim.
"I fired my gun twice," he told jurors. He missed.
He said several officers then jumped out of the truck and more shots followed. When he finally emerged, he found no injured officers. On the walkway next to the truck five civilians lay sprawled on the ground, bleeding.
He told jurors that he knew immediately that Bowen had not kicked weapons off the bridge. He decided that the shooting was unjustified and officers intended to cover their tracks.
He later admitted that he participated in a cover-up after cutting a deal with the government last year.
His testimony and that of others who have made plea deals will be crucial in proving the government's case.
Lt. Michael Lohman, who also pleaded guilty, told the jury earlier this week that every report filed about the Danziger incident is full of "lies and fabrications."
Defense lawyers hammered on both men as being liars who are simply trying to save their own skin. Lawyer Eric Hessler asked Hills whether it's true that he has complained of prosecutors pressuring him to say the things that they want said.
Hills testified he had discussed his testimony with another officer but called it "a misunderstanding" that was resolved.
In other testimony this week, the jury heard from two nurses at the hospital where Danziger shooting victims were taken. Lawyers questioned them about the handling of a bullet taken from the head of shooting survivor Leonard Bartholomew Sr.
The defense seemed poised to question whether the bullet admitted into evidence was the same one removed from the victim in 2005.
Also, as lawyers finished questioning shooting victim Jose Holmes, who first took the stand on Wednesday, he said that the depression he felt during his 10-week hospital stay deepened with the threat he might face attempted murder charges.
He said hospital personnel had told him he was going to be indicted for shooting at police on the Danziger Bridge.
Holmes said he felt as though nurses were saying, "I want you to get better because you're going to get arrested when you get out."
He faced no charges.
The trial began Monday and is expected to last up to two months.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Peter Bohan)