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Defending Killer Cops

Whatever the verdict at the end of the Danziger Trial, lawyers for the accused have offered a passionate defense of their clients. The five officers on trial for killing Ronald Madison and James Brisette and wounding four others on September 5, 2005, are represented by six lawyers: Lindsay Larson and Paul Fleming, both representing officer Robert Faulcon; Eric Hessler, representing Sergeant Robert Gisevius; Stephen London, representing Sergeant Arthur Kaufman; Timothy Meche, representing officer Anthony Villavaso; and Frank DeSalvo, representing Sergeant Kenneth Bowen.

Defense attorneys have been aggressive in their questioning of prosecution witnesses, especially the former officers who have pleaded guilty and agreed to testify in exchange for lighter sentences. They have occasionally displayed hostility towards attorneys for the government, who are prosecuting the case. In his opening arguments, attorney Timothy Meche mocked Bobbi Bernstein, the lead prosecutor in the case, for saying that officers should have “assessed” the situation on the bridge before they began shooting, saying that any hesitation could have cost the officers their lives. Meche said that the officers were part of a task force that took on the most dangerous assignments, and that they are “proactive and help people and recue people.” Kaufman attorney Stephen London derided the prosecution for even investigating his client, saying, “for the government to come here six years later and look over his shoulder is inexcusable.”

Former officer Jeffrey Lehrmann, who began his testimony on the morning of July 11, was the subject of a withering cross-examination by Kaufman attorney Stephen London. Much of the defense tactic in questioning officers who have testified for the prosecution involves going over past testimony and asking repeatedly about discrepancies. For example, in questioning Lehrmann, London asked repeatedly about the gun he said Kaufman had planted at the crime scene. In one telling of his story, Lehrmann had said Kaufman handed the gun to him. In other telling, he said Kaufman had handed the gun to officer Gisevius then him. “You’re nitpicking,” said Lehrmann, insisting that the differences were irrelevant and minor. “It is different. Big time different,” replied London.

Bowen attorney Frank DeSalvo also mocked prosecutors in his opening statements, perhaps hoping to appeal to anti-government sentiments on the jury. He said that the government’s case sounded like something out of a “Grisham novel” written by someone who knows a little bit of law. DeSalvo added that many of the government’s witnesses were liars, while others were deluded.

DeSalvo, who in his work with the Police Association of New Orleans has defended countless police officers over the years, has been involved in the Danziger case since the beginning. Some questioned his involvement in the state case against the Danziger officers, which was dismissed by Judge Raymond Bigelow in 2008. DeSalvo’s daughter, Emily DeSalvo Blackburn, was a minute clerk for Judge Bigelow, and is the wife of one of DeSalvo’s law partners.

One of the most strident defenders has been Paul Fleming, Jr, who appears to have taken a leadership role among the attorneys. Fleming was the first attorney to speak for the defense in opening arguments, and he began by forcefully declaring the words “These men are not guilty.” He has frequently been the first to question witnesses, and is often the first to object in court to the government’s line of questioning.

Unlike DeSalvo, Fleming is not known for defending police, but he does have a history that involves some notorious cases, mostly in Jefferson Parish, and often involving the death penalty. He is probably best known as the lawyer for Vince Marinello, the well-known local sportscaster who was convicted of killing his wife. Fleming was also the lawyer for Charles Atwood, a Metairie man who pleaded guilty in 2003 to killing and dismembering at least three women.

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans, and an editor of Left Turn Magazine.  He can be reached at neworleans@leftturn.org.

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Jordan Flaherty is a filmmaker and journalist based in New Orleans. You can see more of his work at jordanflaherty.org.

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