The Jury’s Turn

With closing statements completed on Tuesday, focus in the Danziger incident now turns to the jury, which began deliberating today on the 25 charges faced by the officers, after receiving final jury instructions from U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt. The 12-person jury is evenly split between men and women, but has only one African-American member. The jury is drawn from thirteen parishes in the greater New Orleans area.

Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavaso, and Robert Faulcon, the officers involved in the September 4, 2005 shooting, could receive life sentences if convicted. Sergeant Arthur Kaufman, who was not on the bridge, is charged only in the conspiracy and could receive a maximum of 120 years. Justice Department investigations of other incidents are continuing, and it is likely that some form of federal oversight of the department will be announced in the coming months.

During closing statements of a trial that has brought international attention to this city’s violence-plagued police department, lawyers for defense and prosecution directed what often sounded like personal attacks against each other as well as key witnesses while laying out very different versions of what happened on that fateful day.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Theodore Carter said that officers deliberately did not follow procedure, and that if they had done what they were supposed to, no one would have died that day. “It was unreasonable for these officers to fire even one shot,” said Carter, who referred to video footage from that day which he said showed at least “fifty four seconds of gunfire.”

In a spirited defense that seemed to echo Tea Party themes, police attorney Frank Desalvo told the jury, “We know that the United States is the greatest country on earth, and the only thing wrong with it is the people running it.” Depicting Justice Department attorneys as furthering an anti-cop agenda, he told the jury that the prosecutors in this case do not represent the United States and that they are the true Americans.

Desalvo also accused the prosecution of speaking “meaningless, emotional drivel,” and giving ammunition to “a segment of the community that believes police are always brutal.”

The trial, which began five weeks ago, focuses on an incident that occurred days after Hurricane Katrina, as two families were fleeing the storm’s flood waters, crossing New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge to get to dry land.

In what prosecutors have described as a “hail of gunfire,” two people were killed and four were wounded. Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally challenged man described by family members as gentle and loving, was shot several times in the back and died at the scene. James Brisette, a high school student who friends called nerdy and studious, also died on the bridge. The wounded included Lesha Bartholomew, who was 17 at the time of the incident, as well as her father, cousin and mother, who lost her right arm in the incident.

The case has presented two radically different narratives of not just the shootings, but the overall period after Hurricane Katrina. Defense attorneys have said that their clients were facing a violent and lawless city, while the prosecution has painted a picture of civilians facing a violent and lawless police force.

Defense attorneys filled the nearly five hours allotted for their closing remarks with what they said were questions the prosecution had left unanswered.

Both prosecution and defense spoke often about the testimony of Robert Faulcon, the only defendant to testify. Prosecution attorneys noted that Faulcon had admitted that Lance and Ronald Madison were unarmed, and that police officers had continued shooting dozens of shots after any threat had been “neutralized.” Most damning for the defense, Faulcon admitted under cross-examination that there had been a cover-up.

Paul Fleming, one of Faulcon’s attorneys, said that he had been “tricked” by Bernstein in her cross-examination.

“He’s not as smart as Bernstein. Neither am I,” said Fleming, who also called FBI agent William Bezak, the lead investigator on the case, “smug.”

Lindsey Larson, another attorney for Faulcon, said that his client was tired and hadn’t known what he was saying when he admitted to the cover-up, saying it was “like when you’re arguing with your spouse” and you just say yes to whatever they say. “He wasn’t even listening,” to Bernstein’s questions, added Larson.

Tim Meche, attorney for Officer Anthony Villavaso, implied that Lance Madison, a key prosecution witness, had colluded with government to change his story. “After he got with the government and all lawyered-up and all that he changed his mind,” said Meche.

Desalvo also levied accusations at Madison, saying that he had a gun, and that the Bartholomew family was also armed. Suggesting that Madison may have thrown his gun in the industrial canal, Desalvo added, “Did he really care about his brother, or was he just trying to get away?” The Madison family, including Lance, filled nearly two rows at the closing, and many seemed visibly upset during defense arguments.

In a breathless 40-minute rebuttal to the defense, Bobbi Bernstein, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said that attorneys for the officers had engaged in outright lying on behalf of their clients, saying that the accused had “delivered their own kind of post-apocalyptic justice,” and called at least one of the cops, officer Bowen, “a cold blooded murderer.”

She also mocked the defense for complaining about the “big bad government.” Saying that the DOJ had to intervene because the victims were denied justice from every local source, Bernstein declared “The law is what it is because this is not a police state.”

Pacing back and forth, speaking quickly, and gesturing pointedly to illustrate her arguments as she attempted to respond to as many defense arguments as possible, Bernstein also refuted the claim that the officers were heroes, saying the family members of those shot that day deserved the title more. Noting that the official cover-up had “perverted” the system, she said “the real heroes are the victims who stayed with an imperfect justice system that initially betrayed them.”

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

A version of this article was originally published on the New Orleans Tribune/TribuneTalk website

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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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