Hurricane Katrina gave no excuse for the carnage on a New Orleans bridge where police shot and killed two unarmed people and wounded four others in 2005, a federal prosecutor said in closing arguments Tuesday at the trial of five current or former officers.
But a defense attorney urged jurors to consider the "disorder, chaos and lawlessness" that gripped the flooded city after Katrina when they decide whether the officers acted reasonably in using deadly force.
"That doesn't mean the rules change, but the perception changes," added Paul Fleming, a lawyer for former officer Robert Faulcon. "What's considered reasonable gets looked at a little differently."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Theodore Carter said police had no justification for shooting unarmed, defenseless people on the Danziger Bridge on Sept. 4, 2005, and then plotting to plant a gun, fabricate witnesses and falsify reports.
"They thought they could do what they wanted to do and there wouldn't be any consequences," Carter said of the defendants. "It was unreasonable for these officers to fire even one shot, let alone dozens."
After several hours of closing arguments, jurors were expected to begin their deliberations Wednesday.
The jurors heard five weeks of testimony from roughly 60 witnesses in the Justice Department's case against Faulcon, Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, Officer Anthony Villavaso and retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman. Faulcon, Gisevius, Bowen and Villavaso are charged in the shootings and with taking part in the alleged cover-up. Kaufman, who investigated the shootings, only is charged in the alleged cover-up.
Defense attorneys say police were shot at on the bridge before they returned fire.
"None of these people intentionally decided to go out there and cause people harm," said Timothy Meche, Villavaso's lawyer. He said they did their best, operating under "terrible, horrible circumstances."
Eric Hessler, Gisevius' attorney, accused the government of ignoring evidence that somebody shot at the bridge from a grassy area nearby.
Carter, however, said the claim that police encountered armed residents is discredited by the officers' failure to recover any weapons.
"This wasn't a gunfight. This was carnage," the prosecutor said.
On the morning of the shootings, a group of officers piled into a rental truck and drove to the bridge in response to an officer's distress call.
On the east side of the bridge, officers allegedly opened fire on a group of people without issuing warnings or identifying themselves. Prosecutors say Bowen leaned over a concrete barrier and randomly sprayed gunfire at wounded, unarmed people seeking cover.
"There's no excuse for that. There was no threat," Carter said. "What is that? That's attempted murder."
Carter said Faulcon fired the "kill shot" from a shotgun, striking 17-year-old James Brissette in the head, mortally wounding him.
"The only thing James Brissette pointed at these officers was his back," Carter said.
Bowen's attorney, Frank DeSalvo, said ballistics evidence doesn't support prosecutors' claim that his client leaned over the barrier and shot Brissette while he was lying down.
"There is not a shred of evidence that Ken Bowen intended to shoot James Brissette," he said.
Fleming said the evidence suggests another former officer who pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up and cooperated with federal authorities was responsible for fatally shooting Brissette.
Faulcon, the only defendant to testify, said he was "paralyzed with fear" when he shot and killed 40-year-old Ronald Madison as he chased him and his brother, Lance Madison. Faulcon didn't dispute that he shot an unnamed man in the back, but said he had believed Ronald Madison was armed and posed a threat.
"Unfortunate and tragic do not mean unreasonable," Fleming said.
Kaufman allegedly retrieved a gun from his home weeks after the shootings and turned it in as evidence, trying to pass it off as a gun belonging to Lance Madison. He also is accused of fabricating two non-existent witnesses to the shootings.
Kaufman's attorney, Stephen London, said another investigator, retired Sgt. Gerard Dugue, was responsible for the contents of the department's official report on the shootings. London told jurors they heard proof that Kaufman didn't write any false reports.
"He not only didn't sign anything, they don't have anybody who puts his finger anywhere near that," London added.
Dugue also is charged in the case but is scheduled to be tried separately later.
In 2006, seven officers were indicted in state court on murder or attempted murder charges. After a state judge dismissed those charges in 2008, the Justice Department's civil rights division opened an investigation.
Lance Madison, who was arrested on attempted murder charges but later cleared by the state grand jury, has said he believed teenagers were shooting at him and his brother on the bridge. He disavowed that recollection during the trial, but defense attorneys said his earlier statements were powerful evidence that police faced a deadly threat.
Officer Heather Gore, an officer who isn't charged in the case, testified before a federal grand jury that she saw a man point an assault rifle at police when she jumped out of the rental truck. Justice Department prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein called her a liar.
"The only people with guns on the bridge that day were the officers," she said.