New Orleans cops jailed for Katrina killings

Posted: April 05, 2012

NEW ORLEANS - A federal judge sentenced five former police officers to years in prison for the deadly shootings on a New Orleans bridge in the chaotic days following Hurricane Katrina, but not before lashing out at prosecutors for allowing others involved to serve lighter penalties for their crimes. The case that wrapped up Wednesday was the centerpiece of a Justice Department push to clean up New Orleans' police department, which has long been tainted with corruption.

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt expressed frustration that he was bound by mandatory minimum sentencing laws to imprison former Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius and former officers Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon for decades when other officers who engaged in similar conduct on the Danziger Bridge - but cut deals with prosecutors - are serving no more than eight years behind bars.

"These through-the-looking-glass plea deals that tied the hands of this court . . . are an affront to the court and a disservice to the community," he said.

Police gunned down 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, who were both unarmed, and wounded four others on Sept. 4, 2005, less than a week after the storm devastated New Orleans. To cover it up, the officers planted a gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports. Defense attorneys have indicated that they will appeal.

Engelhardt also criticized prosecutors for the different ways that they charged those who didn't cooperate with a Justice Department civil-rights investigation and those who did. The charges were filed in such a way that they left judges with little discretion in handing out sentences in each set of cases, Engelhardt said.

Faulcon received the stiffest sentence of 65 years. Bowen and Gisevius each got 40 years while Villavaso was sentenced to 38. All four were convicted of federal firearms charges that carried mandatory minimum sentences ranging from 35 to 60 years in prison. Faulcon was convicted in both deadly shootings.

"The court imposes them purely as a matter of statutory mandate," Engelhardt said.

Retired Sgt. Arthur "Archie" Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shootings, received six years in prison - a sentence below the federal guidelines. Kaufman wasn't charged in the shootings but was convicted of helping orchestrate the cover-up.

During a scathing lecture that lasted roughly two hours, Engelhardt questioned the credibility of officers who cut deals and testified against the defendants during last year's trial.

"Citing witnesses for perjury at this trial would be like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500," Engelhardt said.

Justice Department attorney Bobbi Bernstein defended prosecutors' tactics, saying that the officers who cooperated with the probe gave them the breakthrough they needed to reveal the cover-up.

"Those deals are the reason that the whole world now knows what happened on the Danziger Bridge," she said.

The sentences were significantly lower than what prosecutors had recommended. They had asked the judge to sentence the four shooters to prison terms ranging from nearly 60 years for Villavaso to 87 years for Faulcon.

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