Prosecutors, defense face off in Katrina police brutality case

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 27, 2011 11:19 PM
Prosecutors, defense face off in Katrina police brutality case

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Tears streamed down Susan Bartholomew's cheeks as she recalled feeling the bullets blowing off her right arm, and listening to her suffering daughter and husband beside her.

"I could hear them crying out, and you could tell they were in a lot of pain. I prayed," she told jurors in a New Orleans courtroom on Monday. "I just called on the Lord because I didn't know what else to do."

Emotional testimony on Monday by Bartholomew, who lost her right arm in a barrage of police gunfire days after Hurricane Katrina, marked day one of a trial that could send five local police officers to prison for the rest of their lives.

Federal prosecutors launched their case against the officers, accused of civil rights violations in connection with shooting and killing two unarmed civilians, wounding four others and allegedly conducting an elaborate cover-up.

On trial are officers Robert Faulcon, Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavaso and Arthur Kaufman. A sixth officer is schedule for trial in the fall.

On the morning of September 4, 2005, they and other officers were working from a makeshift station a few miles from the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans when they heard a radio call that officers were under fire and the perpetrators were running toward the bridge.

When they encountered the civilians -- including members of the Bartholomew family at one end of the bridge, and brothers Lance Madison and Ronald Madison near the other end -- some of the officers opened fire.

James Brissette, 17, died in the shooting, as did 40-year-old Ronald Madison. All of the surviving victims, as well as some officers at the scene, have said none of the victims had a weapon.

When the shooting stopped and officers ordered the victims to raise their hands, Bartholomew testified that she was terrified.

"I thought they would kill me because I couldn't raise both hands, because my arm was gone," she said.

"I DON'T HAVE A RIGHT ARM"

Bartholomew, who wore a shawl across her shoulders to conceal her injury from the shooting, had to raise her left hand to take the witness oath.

"I don't have a right arm," she told the bailiff.

Before lawyers began their opening statements, U.S. District Judge Kurt Englehardt read the 25-count indictment of the men, who face charges including deprivation of civil rights, use of a weapon in a violent crime and obstruction of justice related an alleged four-year cover-up of facts of the shooting.

Jurors paid close attention as Barbara Bernstein, lead attorney for the U.S. Justice Department in the case, repeatedly lifted her arms as though taking aim with a rifle and shouted, "Boom."

Defense attorneys called the government's version of the events "a fairy tale."

The five officers were among the heroes of post-Katrina New Orleans, said attorney Paul Fleming. The lawyers described a stress-ridden, flooded city in which the officers worked tirelessly for several days under horrific conditions to rescue citizens.

"Judge these men in the context of the worst natural disaster in the history of this country," Fleming said.

Statements by some officers who have pled guilty indicate that the firing continued after the victims were on the ground. Several are expected to testify in the trial, which could last two months.

Key questions will be whether anyone fired on police officers in the area of the Danziger Bridge on September 4, 2005, and if so, who did the shooting.

Defense lawyers appear likely to raise what has become known as the "Katrina defense," meaning the hurricane and subsequent flood threw New Orleans into such a chaotic state that police officers could not be expected to exercise normal caution and restraint.

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk discounted that defense in March as he sentenced two New Orleans police officers to prison for killing civilian Henry Glover and disposing of his body in a burning car. Africk told the men that other officers understood "the Constitution was not suspended during Katrina."

(Editing by Jerry Norton)