By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Police planted a weapon and fabricated witnesses to cover up the shooting deaths of two civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a New Orleans detective told jurors on Monday.
Former homicide detective Jeffrey Lehrmann, who wore a wire to secretly gather evidence against fellow police officers involved in the shooting, faced them in court and described how those tactics helped them cover up a "bad" shooting for years and frame an innocent man.
Lehrmann's testimony opened the third week in the federal trial of five police officers charged with civil rights violations or obstructing justice in the shooting just after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans.
Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon face charges in the shooting, which killed 41-year-old Ronald Madison and 17-year-old James Brissette. Arthur "Archie" Kaufman is accused of orchestrating a cover-up of the crimes.
Surviving victims and other witnesses have said none of the civilians were armed.
Lehrmann and four other officers have pleaded guilty to a role in the crimes. He has been sentenced to three years in prison for knowing of a crime and not reporting it.
After cutting a deal with prosecutors last year, he agreed to wear a wire to record several meetings he had with Gisevius. Judge Kurt Englehardt allowed the information he obtained to be admitted in court.
The defense has argued that the police believed they were being threatened after responding to a radio call that police were taking gunfire near the bridge.
Lehrmann told jurors that when he arrived on the scene just after the gunfire ended, he knew officers had responded to a report that police were under attack.
But when he saw five people lying on the ground bleeding, with no guns in sight, he was suspicious, he said.
Kaufman later told Lehrmann "that Faulcon had shot an innocent man," he said.
Lehrmann said he understood soon after the shooting that officers were bent on protecting themselves "from legal ramifications," and he helped them justify their actions.
When it was obvious that the civilians' lack of weapons was a problem, he said, they "fixed" it by planting a gun.
"We got one from Archie's house," he said.
Then, when the investigators entered Kaufman's Colt revolver into evidence, he said they took another step: They reported they had confiscated the weapon from Lance Madison, whose brother was killed at the scene. And they arrested him and charged him with attempted murder of police officers.
Lehrmann said after attributing the planted revolver to Madison, Kaufman "was not happy" to learn that Madison had no criminal record.
"These are big charges against a man who's never been arrested," Lehrmann said on the witness stand Monday.
Lehrmann said he and Kaufman also made up two eyewitnesses: Lakeisha Smith, who supposedly stated she saw Ronald Madison reach into his waistband for something before being shot, and James Youngman, whose statement said he saw young men shoot at police and then flee over the Danziger Bridge.
Neither Smith nor Youngman exist, Lehrmann said.
In cross-examination, defense lawyer Steve London pointed to many discrepancies in the case.
Lehrmann was frequently fuzzy in his recollections, and defense lawyers caused him to stumble often. He admitted to being confused, and throughout his testimony spoke with a nonchalance that appeared to aggravate the lawyers.
"The lies changed whenever we needed to change them," Lehrmann said at one point, in reference to filing many false reports. "It was part of the fun."
"My client is on trial here. You think this is funny?" London demanded several times.
Lehrmann said he hopes to get a reduced sentence in return for cooperating with the prosecution.
The trial is expected to last several weeks.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Greg McCune)