By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A secretly recorded conversation played in a New Orleans courtroom on Monday seemed to cast doubt on the government's claim no civilians had guns when police shot at them in the days following Hurricane Katrina.
A defense lawyer for one of the officers accused in the shooting played the 80-minute, obscenity-laced tape during the testimony of officer Robert Barrios, who wore a wire to record the conversation with his former partner, Anthony Villavaso, in 2010.
Trying to get Villavaso to admit he shot at unarmed people, Barrios said more than 20 times on the tape he saw no guns in the hands of civilians.
"The jig is up. There were no guns out there," he said. "The people didn't have a f...king toothpick on them."
But over and over Villavaso stuck to his assertion. "They had guns," he said. "I remember a f...king gun."
Villavaso is one of four police officers on trial in the shooting and killing of two unarmed civilians and injuring of four others on the Danziger Bridge on September 4, 2005, while much of New Orleans remained submerged in flood waters.
Along with Arthur Kaufman, the four are also charged with lying and filing false reports to make the shooting appear justified. All face potential life sentences if convicted.
During the first four weeks of the trial, prosecutors attempted to paint a picture of out-of-control police officers firing randomly at innocent people.
The defense is now trying to show that the officers felt threatened in the chaos and were trying to defend themselves and each other.
Barrios has admitted to participating in a cover-up and faces a potential five-year prison sentence. He is the only one of five officers who have pleaded guilty to a role in the incident and was not called as a prosecution witness in the first three weeks of the trial.
As defense lawyers grilled Barrios about whether he hopes to receive a reduced sentence by supporting the government's claim the shooting victims were unarmed, they revealed that he also has other legal troubles.
Barrios, who said he has earned money as a fisherman since resigning from the police force, acknowledged he is also being investigated for fraudulently filing a damage claim connected with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Are you hopeful as well that if you provide substantial assistance that they (the government) will assist you in that BP investigation?" lawyer Timothy Meche asked.
"I haven't thought that far," Barrios said.
The defense also pressed Barrios about a report his wife complained to the U.S. attorney's office, saying her husband had been pressured by prosecutors to plead guilty and say things he didn't believe to be true.
Barrios discounted his wife's action, saying it was "just emotions."
As prosecutors began cross-examining Barrios on Monday, he recalled hearing Villavaso and other defendants discussing which of the victims each of them may have shot.
Barrios reiterated that he did not shoot a gun and the civilians were unarmed.
Earlier in the day, the jury heard testimony from former New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley, who was deputy chief at the time of the Danziger Bridge shooting.
Riley, who replaced Eddie Compass as police chief a few months after Katrina, said he "was completely shocked and surprised" when he heard details about the incident from federal investigators in 2010.
Asked why the incident was not investigated immediately after it happened, he said Compass had temporarily suspended normal investigation procedures due to lack of resources, including communications systems, which had been wrecked in the flood.
Riley testified that after becoming superintendent late in 2005, he received a briefing about the Danziger Bridge incident.
Asked by prosecutor Cindy Chung if the investigation was thorough, Riley said: "Based on what was represented to me at that time and what has been subsequently learned, no."
One or more of the defendants could take the witness stand as the trial, now in its fifth week, continues. It is due to resume on Wednesday.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Jerry Norton)