Friday, July 29, 2011

Defense rests in Danziger Trial, insisting victims were armed

This article originally appeared on the New Orleans Tribune/Tribune Talk website:
After less than one full week and having presented the testimony of only one of the five defendants, the defense in the Danziger police violence trial rested their case on Thursday.

Much of the defense relied on the scenario that there were armed civilians on or near the bridge firing at officers, or that officers could reasonably have believed that was the case. Shawn Gasaway, a paramedic on the scene that day, testified that he saw people on the grass beside the bridge firing up at officers. The defense also read grand jury testimony from Heather Gore and Donald Haynes III, two officers on the scene who have not been charged in the killings or cover-up. Haynes testified that he saw two Black males “facing the officers with their hands extended.” Haynes admitted he didn’t actually see weapons in their hands, but he insisted the males must have had guns that they were firing at police. “Standing toe to toe with the officers like that I believed he was shooting,” said Haynes.

Gore, who was the last cop to exit the Budget rental truck that carried officers to the bridge, testified that she saw a “Black male with an assault rifle” pointing his weapon at officers and then running up the bridge. Gore said she only saw the man briefly and couldn’t say for sure he was not an officer; however, she insisted that he couldn’t have been with law enforcement because his gun had been pointed in the direction of police.

However, the prosecution repeatedly raised doubts about the credibility of defense witness accounts, pointing out that the various stories did not match up and accusing Haynes and Gore of lying to protect their fellow officers. Prosecutor Cindy Chung also said that the other paramedics traveling with Gasaway that day disputed his version of events and had said that gunfire had ended by the time they arrived on the scene.

Perhaps the most powerful testimony for the defense was a recording played in court of a conversation between officers Barrios and Villavaso. Barrios, who pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the prosecution, secretly recorded a conversation with Villavaso, his friend and former partner. On the tape, Barrios repeatedly tries to get Villavaso to admit that civilians on the bridge were unarmed, but Villavaso refuses to budge, insisting that the victims had guns.

The taped conversation also revealed that Villavaso and Barrios feel that the alleged cover-up crafted by Sergeant Kaufman and others unfairly directs the blame at them, as well as at Officer Faulcon. Some observers at the trial have speculated that the cover-up exonerated white cops at the expense of Black officers, although there are other factors aside from race that divide the officers, such as rank, place of work, and social circles.

This element of the story also unfolded earlier in the trial, during the testimony of Jeffrey Lehrmann, a former NOPD investigator and current government witness. Lehrmann admitted that the report he helped write noted that Villavaso fired an AK47, but failed to mention that Bowen also fired the same type of weapon.

The so-called “Danziger Seven” includes three white cops; Sergeant Kenneth Bowen, Sergeant Robert Gisevius, and Officer Michael Hunter; and four Black officers; Robert Barrios, Anthony Villvaso, Robert Faulcon and Ignatius Hills. Villavaso and Barrios were the only two officers not from the seventh district. Faulcon had been with the seventh, but left the force weeks after Katrina.

Hunter, Hills and Barrios have since pleaded guilty, while the four remaining officers are currently on trial along with Sergeant Arthur Kaufman, who was not part of the shooting but is accused of leading the cover-up.

Officer Faulcon was the only defendant to take the stand. Speaking confidently, Faulcon testified to seeing armed men firing at him, saying that he returned fire “until the threat was neutralized.” During a contentious cross-examination by government prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein, Faulcon refused to admit to almost any laws or restrictions on police use of deadly force.

Asked repeatedly about situations when an officer may or may not fire or whether it was necessary to shout a warning first, Faulcon responded, “It’s hard to say yes and it’s hard to say no, that’s up to that individual.” When asked if an officer should follow guidelines on use of force he had been trained on in his years in the military and NOPD, he responded, “According to textbook, yes. According to reality, not necessarily.”

Bernstein also questioned Faulcon’s denial that he had collaborated with the other defendants in conspiring to change their stories. She listed several dates when Faulcon had apparently spoken on the phone with the other defendants, including several calls during the days in January of 2006 when officers gave their official statements for the NOPD internal investigation of the incident. When Faulcon claimed to not have the phone numbers of some of the other officers, Bernstein asked, “Can you sometimes talk to people on the phone even if you don’t have their phone number?”

While we wont know until the verdict comes down what the jury thought of Faulcon, his testimony may have damaged other officer’s cases, especially Kaufman’s. When asked by Bernstein if he agreed that there was a cover-up, Faulcon responded, “Based on what I learned now, yes.”

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