A grand jury on Thursday indicted seven New Orleans police officers on murder and attempted murder charges for their role in a chaotic post-Katrina shooting that left two dead, including a mentally disabled man.
The criminal charges against the officers, who had been cleared of any wrongdoing by the New Orleans Police Department, come after widespread public criticism of what has become known as the Danziger Bridge incident. The police shootings have, for many in the city, come to symbolize the lawlessness and disorder that marked the days after the hurricane.
"We cannot allow our police officers to shoot and kill our citizens without justification like rabid dogs," Orleans Parish Dist. Atty. Eddie J. Jordan Jr. said in a statement Thursday. "The rules governing the use of lethal force are not suspended during a state of emergency. Everyone, including police officers, must abide by the law of the land."
Six days after Katrina hit New Orleans, police on Sept. 4, 2005, commandeered a truck and responded to what they initially reported as two officers down during an armed attack on the Danziger Bridge linking the Gentilly and New Orleans East neighborhoods.
In the fusillade that followed, Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man who had refused to leave his dogs during the storm, and James Brissette, 19, were killed. Four others were seriously wounded.
From the outset, the shooting's survivors have said that they were simply crossing the bridge and ran in panic only after a pack of men they thought were criminals opened fire for no apparent reason.
Follow-up media reports found that no officers had been wounded prior to the gunfire that killed Madison and Brissette, casting doubt on the officers' version of events, which was backed by the department. An autopsy found that Madison was shot in the back several times, contradicting a sergeant's claims that the man, who had no prior criminal record, had come toward the officers and reached into his waistband before being shot.
In response to public criticism, Jordan convened a special grand jury to examine evidence in the case. On Thursday, it indicted two sergeants, Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius, and two officers, Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon, on first-degree murder charges in Brissette's death. Faulcon also was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Madison. The charges carry a potential death sentence.
The four officers also were charged with varying counts of attempted murder in the shootings of additional victims, as were officers Robert Barrios, Michael Hunter and Ignatius Hills.
The grand jury did not indict Madison's older brother Lance, who had been wounded on the bridge. Lance Madison, a 25-year Federal Express employee with no prior criminal record, had been arrested and charged with numerous offenses, including attempted murder of police officers. He will no longer be prosecuted.
New Orleans Police Department spokeswoman Bambi Hall said Thursday that police would not comment on the shootings.
"As in the past few months, the district attorney is the only office to provide commentary on the Danziger incident," Hall said via e-mail.
Legal representatives for the officers could not be reached Thursday. In an interview with the Associated Press, Franz Zibilich, an attorney for Faulcon, said: "As a wise man once said, a district attorney can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.
"They heard only one side of the story."
Prior to the indictment, attorneys for the shooting victims had filed three federal civil-rights suits seeking millions in damages from New Orleans.
Edwin Shorty, an attorney demanding $29 million on behalf of members of a family seriously wounded while crossing the bridge, said he welcomed the start of a criminal case against the officers.
But he said that due to the tortured history of the case, he would temper his enthusiasm until he saw it actually prosecuted. Three of his four clients, members of the Bartholomew family, were shot. One, Susan Bartholomew, lost her right arm.
"We're happy the process is finally moving forward with criminal charges, but it is very early, and I can't help but be cynical at this point," Shorty said. "My clients look forward to their day in court."