NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Five former New Orleans police officers pleaded guilty Wednesday in deadly shootings in the days following Hurricane Katrina, abruptly ending a decade-old case that tainted an already scandal-plagued police force and reawakened memories of the chaos and devastation from the catastrophic 2005 storm.
The case also spotlighted misconduct by federal prosecutors. The men had been convicted by a jury in 2011 but U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt set aside the verdict two years later because federal prosecutors leaked information to the media and made anonymous online comments about the case.
The plea agreement means significantly shorter sentences for the former officers, with credit for years already served. It also avoids another long and painful trial.
"Hopefully, today will mean further closure for the victims of these crimes and the city itself," Engelhardt said.
He castigated the Justice Department for what he called evasive and sometimes false responses to questions about the online comments, calling it "jiggery pokery" at one point.
The case isn't completely finished. The sentences still must be completed, lawsuits continue and the criminal case of another ex-officer implicated in the cover up was severed from the others and has yet to be resolved.
Four of the former officers have been locked up for nearly six years while the fifth has been out on bond. Their original convictions called for them to serve anywhere from six years to 65 years in prison. The plea deal calls for them to serve a range of three to 12 years.
On Sept. 4, 2005, days after the levees failed and water swamped the city, police gunned down 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, who were both unarmed, and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge. To cover it up, the officers planted a gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports, prosecutors have said.
Lance Madison, brother of mentally disabled Ronald Madison, was on the bridge that day and was initially arrested after being falsely accused of shooting at officers.
"I'm thankful that our mother is still with us to see justice being served and for these officers to finally be held accountable for their crimes," he said in a statement.
Family members of the defendants and the victims stayed quiet throughout the hearing, under warnings from the judge against emotional outbursts. One woman dabbed her eyes as Engelhardt, addressing the pain caused by the shooting, referenced Ronald Madison's disabilities.
"Those of us who have special needs members of our family know what a blessing he or she may be," the judge said.
The shootings at the bridge happened as much of the city remained under water and without power after the Aug. 29 deluge. Tens of thousands had been stranded at the Louisiana Superdome and the Morial Convention Center for days after the storm. The police force was under immense strain as looting was rampant and authorities were struggling to account for, and collect the bodies of hundreds killed in the flood waters.
Police said at the time of the Danziger shooting that the officers were responding to a report of other officers down when they came under fire.
However, after hearing from five dozen witnesses and examining 400 pieces of evidence during a monthlong trial, a federal jury convicted the officers for opening fire and trying to cover up wrongdoing.
Former officer Robert Faulcon initially was sentenced to 65 years in prison before his conviction was thrown out. On Wednesday, he was sentenced to 12 years. Ex-Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius, once sentenced to 40 years each, will now serve 10.
Anthony Villavaso, once facing 38 years, now is sentenced to seven, and Arthur Kaufman received a six-year sentence originally but was given three. He has been out on bond and Engelhardt agreed to consider home incarceration for him.
Under the plea agreement, they will get credit for time served and most of them could be released from prison anywhere from the next one to six years.
The online posting scandal led to the resignation of two assistant U.S. attorneys in New Orleans and the reprimand of a Justice Department attorney. Jim Letten resigned as U.S. attorney, although he was not implicated in the postings on a newspaper's website.
Prosecutors have argued that there is no evidence the misconduct affected the verdict.
"While an imperfect resolution, today's proceeding ensures that these defendants are held accountable for their criminal actions," current U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite said in a news release.
The Danziger case and other police scandals led to a federal investigation of the New Orleans Police Department and eventually, court-ordered reforms.
"One day, maybe soon, we will have a police department as great as the city it serves," Engelhardt said.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a statement it was unfortunate that New Orleans has had to relive this dark chapter in the city's history.
"And I hope that the decision today will allow us to finally turn the page and begin to heal," he said.