This article originally appeared on the New Orleans Tribune/TribuneTalk website.
On Wednesday, five officers were sentenced for firing on unarmed civilians on Danziger Bridge on September 4, 2005, and conspiring to cover-up their crime. The sentences bring some degree of closure to a case that has transformed the official narrative of what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But Judge Engelhardt, who presided over the trial, brought more controversy in a lengthy speech that lambasted the Justice Department’s handling of the case.
Nearly seven years ago, officers killed 17-year-old James Brisette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison and wounded four others in a hail of gunfire on Danziger Bridge. Minutes later, they arrested two of the victims and charged them with firing at officers.
It almost worked. For years, as supervising officers conspired to plant evidence, invent witnesses, and rewrite the reports of what happened that day on the bridge, the truth was hidden. It was not until early 2009, when the Justice Department took an active role in the case, that new evidence was uncovered, witnesses were interviewed, and the conspiracy came apart. Five officers agreed to testify for the state in exchange for the opportunity to plead to lesser charges. Last summer, a jury found the five remaining officers guilty on all 25 counts (on two counts, the jury found the men guilty but with partial disagreements on the nature of the crime).
One other accused conspirator, Sergeant Gerard Dugue, was given a separate trial, which ended in a mistrial in January. Prosecutors have said they intend to retry him.
Before sentencing, the judge heard statements from family members of the victims, including Lance Madison, Ronald's brother, and Sherrel Johnson, the mother of James Brisette. Lawyers for Jose Holmes and Lesha Bartholomew, who were also wounded on the bridge, read their statements for them.
Federal public defender Robin Schulberg, who was not involved in the trial, spoke on behalf of Sergeant Kenneth Bowen, telling the judge that the officers were victims in this situation. "These people are the expendables," she said, referring to the Danziger officers. "A big institution chewed them up and spit them out."
The judge also heard from a number of family members, friends, and coworkers of the officers, and indicated that he had carefully read the large number of other written statements he had received on their behalf. The judge and defense attorneys listed the names of those who had sent statements, and among them were a large number of current and former officers. Among the notable names were Captains Harry Mendoza and Joseph Waguespack, each of whom have figured in previous NOPD controversies.
As a packed courtroom waited to hear his sentencing decision, Judge Engelhardt, who had frequently and forcefully challenged DOJ prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein during the trial, expressed frustration with the government’s handling of the case. Over the next two hours, the judge voiced his opinions at length.
The judge spoke of the 1973 killing of NOPD officers by Mark Essex from the roof of the downtown Howard Johnson as a defining moment in his life that taught him the dangers police officers faced. He read at length from a letter written by Anthony Villavaso, Sr, the father of one of the convicted officers, saying it was “one of finest letters I’ve ever received on behalf of a defendant.”
While praising the job of officers, the judge had little to say about the victims of police violence. He referred to Ronald Madison as the “most sympathetic” person involved, while James Brisette and the others went mostly unmentioned.
Engelhardt’s main complaint was the lenient sentences given to the officers who agreed to testify for the government. “Using liars lying is no way to pursue justice,” he declared. In contrast, he pointed to the mandatory minimums the convicted officers faced, which the judge said had robbed him of his judicial discretion. To drive the point home, the Judge spent nearly an hour reading verbatim from a sentencing commission report critical of mandatory minimum sentences.
Engelhardt singled out each of the officers who testified for the prosecution, saying they should have received longer sentences. Officer Michael Hunter, who fired the first shots on the bridge and as a cooperating witness was sentenced to 8 years in prison, represented “the sparks in the tinderbox without which this incident may not have happened.” Former Lieutenant Lohman “was the ringleader…the buck started and stopped with him.” When the DOJ gave Lohman a charge that sent him to jail for 4 years, they “rewarded so generously the one person in command who could have stopped this.”
Officer Robert Barrios, said Engelhardt, was “the biggest winner of the plea bargain sweepstakes.” Engelhardt said that Barrios had killed James Brisette, a conclusion that varies sharply from the case presented by prosecution, which points towards Faulcon as the one who fired the fatal shots. The jury, in finding the other officers guilty in Brisette’s killing, apparently agreed with prosecutors.
In closing Engelhardt said that he was constrained by the mandatory minimums, but he indicated that otherwise he would have given the officers much more reduced sentences. “The government’s plea bargaining in this case has already undercut any message” that harsher sentences would send, said Engelhardt.
Officers Bowen, Gisevius, and Villavaso, who all faced mandatory minimums of 35 years, received sentences totaling 38 to 40 years, far less than prosecutors had asked for. Officer Faulcon, received 65 years, the mandatory minimum he faced. Officer Kaufman, convicted of masterminding the cover-up, was the only officer not facing mandatory minimums. He received 6 years, a fraction of the 20 years prosecutors had recommended. Unlike the other officers, Kaufmann has been free for the entire trial, and remains free. The judge ordered that he turn himself in to begin his sentence on May 23.
Family members of the victims, and DOJ representatives, expressed their disagreement with the judge’s assessment.
“We were able to transform a case that was a cold case, to put it charitably,” said Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General, in a press conference after the sentencing. “We didn’t have a case back in 2008 when we inherited it.” Perez and US Attorney Letten said that they could not have won convictions without the testimony of other officers, which came because of the plea bargains. “I don’t know how you make a case if you don’t have some ability to bargain,” agreed Mary Howell, an attorney for the Madison family.
“We respectfully disagree with some of the comments made in court today,” said Romell Madison, brother of Ronald Madison. “But at least we got to the truth.”