A federal judge on Thursday acquitted a police sergeant of a charge he stomped on a dying, mentally disabled man who was gunned down on a New Orleans bridge after Hurricane Katrina, overturning parts of a jury verdict that convicted five current or former officers of civil rights violations.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt upheld the majority of the officers' convictions, but he concluded jurors didn't hear sufficient evidence to convict Sgt. Kenneth Bowen of stomping on 40-year-old Ronald Madison after another officer shot and fatally wounded the man. The shooting occurred on the city's Danziger Bridge days after Katrina's storm surge breached levees and swamped much of the desperate city with floodwaters in 2005.
Engelhardt also found insufficient evidence to convict Bowen and three other officers of conspiring to falsely prosecute shooting victim Jose Holmes, who wasn't arrested or charged with wrongdoing after he was wounded by police.
But the judge left most of the verdict intact and rejected defense attorneys' bids for a new trial.
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said his office is reviewing Engelhardt's ruling and weighing options, including whether to appeal.
"The majority of the counts and the serious counts are intact, but all the counts are important to us," Letten said.
Police shot and killed two people and wounded four others on the bridge less than a week after Katrina's landfall.
All five defendants, including a retired police investigator who wasn't charged in the shootings, were convicted of engaging in a brazen cover-up that included a planted gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports.
Jurors convicted them of all 25 counts they faced. Engelhardt ordered acquittals in three of those 25 counts.
Bowen's attorney, Frank DeSalvo, said he hopes the ruling will help the officers at sentencing by Engelhardt.
"Nobody is going free. How much it helps us at sentencing, only time will tell," he said. "The more serious counts are still there."
The judge said the only testimony supporting prosecutors' claims that Bowen stomped on Madison came from Michael Hunter, one of five former officers who pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up. Hunter cooperated with the government.
Engelhardt, however, said Hunter's trial testimony didn't match the account he gave an FBI agent in an interview.
"Hunter's assumed and self-serving license to change the `truth' to suit his (or the government's) purposes or moods is clear on the record," the judge wrote.
Engelhardt also said prosecutors didn't present any physical evidence that Madison was beaten or kicked.
Hunter, who is serving an eight-year prison sentence, was the only cooperating officer to provide an eyewitness account of the shootings. He had driven a group of officers to the bridge in a rental truck in response to another officer's radio call for help. Hunter also testified that he saw Bowen randomly spray gunfire at wounded, unarmed people seeking cover behind a concrete barrier on the bridge.
Engelhardt also overturned the jury's convictions of Bowen and Sgt. Robert Gisevius on charges they conspired to give false statements that would lead to the bogus prosecution of Ronald Madison's brother, Lance. Lance Madison was arrested on attempted murder charges and jailed for three weeks before a judge freed him.
Engelhardt refused to acquit a retired police sergeant, Arthur Kaufman, of the same count.
The case was a high-stakes test of the Justice Department's effort to rid the police department of corruption and brutality. A total of 20 current or former New Orleans police officers were charged last year in a series of federal probes. Most of the cases center on actions during Katrina's aftermath, which plunged the flooded city into lawlessness and desperation.
The officers convicted of charges stemming from the shootings _ Bowen, Gisevius, Officer Anthony Villavaso and former officer Robert Faulcon _ face possible life prison sentences. Kaufman, who was convicted in the cover-up, also is scheduled to be sentenced in December.
Faulcon was convicted of fatally shooting Madison, but the jury decided his killing didn't amount to murder. Faulcon, Gisevius, Bowen and Villavaso were convicted in the death of 17-year-old James Brissette. Jurors didn't have to decide whether Brissette was murdered because they didn't hold any of the defendants individually responsible for causing his death.