Specter of Katrina looms in New Orleans police shooting defense

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 15, 2011 4:43 PM
Specter of Katrina looms in New Orleans police shooting defense

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - It's been six years since a massive storm and flood devastated New Orleans, but when the trial of police officers charged in a deadly 2005 shooting continues next week, Hurricane Katrina will be the 800-pound gorilla in the courtroom.

Defense lawyers did their best to insert the specter of Katrina into the first three weeks of trial as prosecutors presented jurors with a parade of witnesses describing out-of-control police firing indiscriminately at innocent, already traumatized people.

But if the prosecution rests on Monday as expected, defense attorneys will likely pull out the stops to transport jurors to the frightening atmosphere of New Orleans in September 2005.

"Judge these men in the context of the worst natural disaster in the history of this country," lawyer Paul Fleming said in his opening trial argument.

Five officers face federal charges in connection with the deaths of James Brissette, 17, and Ronald Madison, 40, who were killed on September 4, 2005, by police responding to a report officers were under fire.

Four more civilians were seriously wounded in the shooting on the Danziger bridge, and witnesses have said none of the civilians walking on the bridge that day had weapons.

Prosecutors allege not only civil-rights violations, but also a massive years-long cover-up of the shooting. Five other officers have pleaded guilty for their part in the incident.

STATE OF MIND

By consistently hammering on the officers' state of mind and the madness during the aftermath when questioning the prosecution witnesses, defense lawyers have given the public a glimpse into their strategy.

They're expected to remind jurors that waters as deep as 15 feet covered parts of New Orleans after local floodwalls broke on August 29, 2005. Some 1,500 citizens had drowned and tens of thousands were displaced from their homes.

Police officers, too, had to swim or be rescued from rooftops and were separated for days from their families who evacuated to safer locales.

The city's mayor and police chief made matters worse by spreading unfounded rumors of rampant violent crime, the lawyers will say.

The Sunday after the storm hit, the city had descended into chaos, with residents dying from lack of food or water in deplorable shelter conditions and desperation mounting as government officials scrambled to evacuate thousands of people.

"You said, 'It was us against the savages,' right?" defense lawyer Eric Hessler asked government witness Michael Hunter, an officer who has pleaded guilty in the shooting.

"It's the way I felt about the city at the time," Hunter said.

Defense lawyers will use such testimony to set the stage for the day officers working from a makeshift station in eastern New Orleans heard a radio call that police were taking fire from civilians near the Danziger Bridge.

A dozen officers scrambled into a rental truck, because police cars had been flooded, and sped off to the bridge. Four of the officers now on trial -- Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso -- were in the truck. Officer Arthur Kaufman, charged with the others for covering up crimes, followed later.

Witnesses say that when the officers arrived and saw civilians walking up the bridge, they opened fire.

"UNDERSTAND THE BACKDROP"

"The defendants won't say 'We did it because of Katrina,' but rather, 'Understand the backdrop of what was occurring in those days,'" said New Orleans lawyer and former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg.

After a judge in a separate case earlier this year declared the so-called "Katrina defense" off-limits, U.S. District Judge Kurt Englehardt stipulated that defendants may not excuse their actions based on post-Katrina conditions. But that won't keep lawyers from talking about the disaster, Rosenberg said.

"Their theme will be, 'Put yourself in the shoes of these officers who raced up to the bridge to help fellow officers,' " Rosenberg said.

Civil-rights scholar Jeannine Bell says the strategy could work "because jurors will substitute their own feelings about what that time was like in evaluating whether the officers' behavior was appropriate."

But Bell, a Neizer fellow at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law, also said the approach gives cops too much leeway.

"The jurors are not police officers," she said. "Police officers have a stressful job, and they're supposed to be trained not to act like the rest of us in a crisis."

Still, "reasonable doubt" is the defendants' goal, Rosenberg said. "If there's one juror with reasonable doubt, it's a win for the defendants."

Rosenberg added that, other circumstances aside, defendants will still have to explain why they allegedly spent years covering up what happened on the Danziger Bridge.

Witnesses have testified that the officers used false reports, fake witnesses and a planted gun to cover their tracks and frame an innocent man for shooting at police.

"I think this case would be readily defensible if not for the cover-up," Rosenberg said.

(Editing by Karen Brooks and Jerry Norton)