Defense tries to shake FBI account of post-Katrina shooting

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 19, 2011 7:23 PM
Defense tries to shake FBI account of post-Katrina shooting

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Lawyers for police officers on trial over a deadly 2005 shooting in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina tried on Tuesday to knock down the government's assertion that only police had fired their guns.

During a cross-examination of the lead FBI investigator, the defense also tried to portray Special Agent William Bezak as an outsider unsympathetic to devastating conditions in New Orleans that day, when much of the city was still underwater.

"There were still people at that time trapped in their houses, but you don't know that. You weren't here, were you?" lawyer Paul Fleming asked Bezak, who lives in Philadelphia.

The shooting on September 4, 2005 killed two people -- James Brissette, 17, and Ronald Madison, 40 -- and seriously wounded four others as officers responded to a report that police were in danger near the Danziger Bridge.

Officers Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso face federal civil rights charges in connection with the shooting. Along with homicide investigator Arthur "Archie" Kaufman, they also are accused of covering up crimes.

Five other officers have pleaded guilty to a role in the incident, and four of them have testified for the prosecution.

In the day-long cross-examination, Fleming referred to Bezak's earlier testimony that he thought a homicide detective should have spent more time investigating what happened on the bridge rather than assisting with ongoing police rescues of people trapped by flood waters.

"How many people do you feel it would be appropriate to be allowed to die" in order to investigate the incident, he continued, before prosecutors' objections ended that line of questioning.

Witnesses, including police, have said that none of the civilians on the bridge that day had guns, and that the police opened fire on the people after hearing a report that shooters somewhere near the Danziger Bridge had fired on police.

But defense lawyer Eric Hessler showed photos of damaged spots on the north side of the bridge that he said could have come from bullets fired by shooters standing on the ground just off the bridge.

Bezak said ballistics experts had determined that ricocheting bullets fired from the southeast, where the police had stood, had caused the marks.

The prosecution is expected to rest with the defense taking over on Wednesday.

(Editing by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston)