Friday, July 8, 2011

Chilling Testimony in Opening Weeks of Danziger Trial

This article originally appeared on The New Orleans Tribune/TribuneTalk website:
Hours after police officers killed two unarmed civilians and wounded four on New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge, Lieutenant Michael Lohman reportedly told other officers, “We can’t have this look like a massacre.”

After two weeks of testimony from survivors of that terrifying day, the word massacre seems apt.

The jury in the Danziger trial has heard from officers on the scene who pleaded guilty and became witnesses for the government in hopes of having their sentences reduced, as well from the civilians who were shot, arrested, and beaten on that day. Lohman and other officers have described a wide-ranging conspiracy to cover-up the killings that began immediately after the shooting and continued for nearly four years.

In court on Wednesday, jurors saw a picture of Lance Madison’s dead body, and former officer Michael Hunter pointed out Sergeant Kenneth Bowen’s boot print on his shoulder, Hunter said Bowen had “a very malicious look in his eye,” as he stomped and kicked Madison, a 40-year-old man with the mental ability of an eight-year-old.

Hunter has already pleaded guilty and been sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in the shooting and cover-up.

According to witnesses, police came to that bridge looking for a shoot-out. Officer Ignatius Hills, who is Black, fired his gun at Leonard Bartholomew IV, who was 14 years old at the time, unarmed, and running away. Bartholomew was arrested that day, not knowing if his family – who he had last seen cowering under a hail of bullets – was still alive.

“I just tried to pop that little (N-Word),” Hill reportedly boasted to former NOPD officer Kevin Bryan, who testified at the trial. Bryan was on the scene that day and now works for the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office.

“Shoot first and ask questions later,” said Department of Justice prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein in her opening arguments. “That’s how this whole case got started.”

Perhaps most chilling has been Hunter’s testimony about the behavior of other officers at all levels of the NOPD. Aside from detailing a wide-ranging conspiracy, Hunter told the court that he and other accused cops were treated “Pretty much like heroes,” by other officers. “Nobody thought we did anything wrong,” added Hunter. “They thought we were being persecuted.” Hunter says that his fellow officers involved in the shootings enjoyed the attention, saying that Officer Villavaso “was reveling in it.”

When Bernstein asked Hunter if he felt like a hero, he said, “There’s nothing heroic about shooting unarmed people while they’re running away.”

Hunter and the other officers should have come to that realization much earlier. “When they finally came forward,” said Bernstein on the opening day, “It was only because they were caught.”

The five officers on trial for the shootings and cover-up are Sergeants Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius and Arthur Kaufman, and Officers Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon. They are facing sentences from 120 years to life. The trial is expected to last at least six weeks.

Photo from 2010 Protest/Memorial on Danziger Bridge.

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