By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A New Orleans homicide detective conspired with other police officers to cover up the fatal shootings of two civilians and wounding of four others in the days after Hurricane Katrina, according to court testimony on Tuesday.
The trial of Gerard Dugue - a now-retired detective who wasn't involved in the September 4, 2005, incident but took up the investigation a few months later - marks the final proceeding against police officers charged in connection with the shootings on Danziger Bridge a week after Katrina broke local flood walls and left much of New Orleans under water.
On Tuesday, officer Ignatius Hills testified that Dugue was present when a group of police officers gathered in January 2006 in a flooded-out, gutted police station to get their stories straight about the shootings.
That meeting convinced Hills the homicide detective was fine with altering police reports to make the shooting look justified, Hills testified in Dugue's federal trial.
"I knew he would be on the same page with everyone else: that the shooting was justified," said former officer Hills, who appeared in court bound in chains and wearing a prisoner's orange jumpsuit.
A federal jury last summer convicted five officers on 22 counts of violating the civil rights of innocent people and obstructing justice. Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso, who participated in the shootings, and homicide detective Arthur Kaufman, who led the police department's initial investigation, all face up to life in prison when they are sentenced next month.
Along with Hills, who is serving a 78-month sentence, four other officers pleaded guilty to participating in the shootings or cover-up and were sentenced to terms of three to eight years. Most of them testified for the prosecution during the 2011 trial.
Dugue, who was granted a separate trial from the other defendants, faces charges that he conspired to obstruct justice, lied to the FBI and violated the civil rights of two people by writing false police reports.
Hills said that police officers began covering their tracks immediately after the shootings. Minutes after the incident, he said, one of the shooters, Sergeant Kenneth Bowen, claimed that the victims who lay dying or seriously wounded had been armed and that Bowen had kicked their guns off the bridge.
"It just wasn't believable," Hills, who was called as a prosecution witness, told the jury. But he said he and other officers, including Dugue, perpetuated the lie.
Defense lawyer Claude Kelly tried to shake Hills' testimony by pointing out that Hills lied about the shooting until he thought it would benefit him to come clean.
"All the terrible things you did and said - you never mentioned one word of that to Gerard Dugue, did you?" Kelly asked.
"No," Hills answered.
Loyola University law professor Dane Ciolino said that Dugue was fortunate to get his trial separated from the other defendants in the case.
"The good news for him is that he's not sitting at the table with the shooters and other officers initially involved," Ciolino told Reuters.
Still, Dugue may find it tough to convince jurors that he was unaware of the cover-up in the face of testimony by the other officers.
"That testimony was given significant weight by the jury at the last trial, and there's no reason to think this jury would give it any less," Ciolino said.
Prosecutors are calling a parade of witnesses whose testimony brings back to life some of the darkest days of post-Katrina New Orleans.
Testimony on Monday, the first day of the trial, came from shooting victim Susan Bartholomew, who lost her arm as the result of a shotgun blast and saw three other members of her family wounded in the Danziger Bridge incident.
Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyneche said the trial is another painful step in putting the horrors of Hurricane Katrina and missteps of the New Orleans Police Department in the past.
"I suspect this is going to reopen some old wounds, but it's absolutely necessary to begin the healing process and rebuild a police department that can be trusted," he told Reuters.
The trial is expected to last about two weeks.
(Reporting By Kathy Finn; Editing By Corrie MacLaggan and Peter Bohan)