Witness says officer sprayed civilians in post-Katrina shooting

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 06, 2011 7:49 PM
Witness says officer sprayed civilians in post-Katrina shooting

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Rising from his seat at the witness stand in a New Orleans courtroom, Michael Hunter lifted a model AK-47 assault rifle to demonstrate on Wednesday how a fellow police officer blasted five civilians during the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Hunter, in the most detailed account to date of the shooting on the Danziger Bridge, said the officer stood above three men and two women and sprayed them with bullets at close range as they lay terrified on a sidewalk on September 4, 2005.

"He fired indiscriminately at the people," Hunter testified, identifying the shooter as Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, a New Orleans police officer on trial along with four others in connection with the shooting that day, as much of the city remained underwater after the storm.

His testimony came during the second week of the federal trial of officers charged with civil rights violations in connection with the shooting deaths of two unarmed civilians, the wounding of four others and an alleged cover-up that lasted several years.

Bowen, sergeants Robert Gisevius and Arthur Kaufman, and officers Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso face possible life sentences if convicted.

Defense attorneys have argued the officers were responding to a perceived threat and that it was difficult to be rational in the tragedy and chaos of the storm's aftermath.

Hunter, who drove a truck carrying nearly a dozen officers to the bridge after hearing police were under fire, is one of five officers who have pleaded guilty to a role in the case. He received an eight-year sentence for his part.

Bowen rode in the front of the rental truck with Hunter that day, Hunter testified. He told jurors that when they neared the bridge, he saw some people walking. But he said they did not appear threatening.

Still, he said, he fired his Glock .22 handgun into the air several times as a warning.

"They began to scatter" and jumped behind a concrete barrier that protected a sidewalk, he said.

YELLED 'CEASE FIRE'

As the truck stopped, Bowen grabbed a rifle and started firing, Hunter said, adding that Bowen and other defendants fired shotguns and assault rifles at the civilians.

Hunter said he shouted "cease fire," and the shooting stopped. But as he peered over at the cowering people, Bowen leaned above the barrier and sprayed bullets, he said.

Hunter said Bowen emptied the rifle of 30 rounds during the incident.

Under questioning by lead prosecutor Barbara Bernstein, Hunter said he fired several times at three other people who were running up the bridge, even though they had no guns and did not threaten police.

"Why were you shooting at people who were running away from you and posed no threat?" Bernstein asked him.

"I wanted to send them a message: Don't mess with us," he said.

Hunter said Faulcon and Gisevius then took off after the runners. Several shotgun blasts later, 40-year-old Ronald Madison lay dying at the other end of the bridge. When Hunter caught up, "the guy was trying to lift his head up and he was wheezing real bad," he said.

A moment later Bowen appeared. Hunter testified. In a final brutal act, Bowen stood over the bleeding man and stomped hard on his back several times, Hunter told jurors.

Meanwhile, at the east end of the bridge, 17-year-old James Brissette lay dead, and four members of the Bartholomew family were seriously wounded.

As defense lawyers began their cross-examination on Wednesday afternoon, they peppered Hunter with questions about his hopes for a reduced sentence in return for his testimony. The trial is expected to last several more weeks.

(Editing by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston)