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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
By MARY FOSTER
Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS --
A judge threw out murder and attempted murder charges Wednesday against seven New Orleans police officers accused of gunning down two men on a bridge in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In quashing the indictments, District Judge Raymond Bigelow agreed with defense arguments that prosecutors violated state law by divulging secret grand jury testimony to a police officer who was a witness in the case.
"The violation is clear," Bigelow said in making the ruling.
Survivors of the Sept. 4, 2005, shootings have said the officers fired at unarmed people crossing the Danziger Bridge to get food at a grocery store. Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, and James Brissette, 19, were shot and killed by police; four other people were wounded.
The officers acknowledged shooting at people on the bridge, but said they did so only after taking fire.
Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. In its aftermath, levees broke, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans. Chaos gripped the city, and looting was reported in some areas. Rescuers said they thought gunfire was directed at them.
Later investigation revealed at least some of the shooting was by residents trapped by floodwater trying to attract the attention of rescue parties.
Survivors of the shooting said in civil suits that they were unarmed and ambushed by the officers, who jumped out of the back of a rental truck and started shooting.
Police officials have acknowledged the officers shot people from both sides of the bridge, but said they were shot at first.
Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius Jr., Officer Anthony Villavaso II and former Officer Robert Faulcon Jr. each faced first-degree murder and attempted murder charges in the case. Bigelow also threw out attempted first-degree murder charges against Officer Mike Hunter Jr. and Officer Robert Barrios and attempted second-degree murder charges against Officer Ignatius Hills.
Faulcon resigned from the police force; the other officers were assigned to desk duty after their indictment.
Bigelow also said Wednesday that prosecutors had wrongly instructed the grand jury, and that grand jury testimony by three of the officers was used against them improperly.
"It bordered on deliberate misuse of the law," Bigelow said. He gave the district attorney's office until Sept. 18 to decide if it would appeal.
Assistant District Attorney Robert White said his office would analyze the rulings and consider appealing. The office could also convene another grand jury to consider new charges against the officers.
"The ruling was not a total surprise," White said.
The officers sat quietly on one side of the court room and did not visibly react to Bigelow's ruling.
"We are very pleased for all the officers," said Bruce Whittaker, the attorney for Hills. "Now these men can get back to doing the work they love."
Madison's brother said the family hoped the Justice Department would investigate the matter. Keva Landrum-Johnson, the interim district attorney, asked U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey to have his civil rights division investigate case, according to a letter dated Aug. 8 that the family provided reporters.
"Our family today still feels that the ruling just proves again that the justice system here in New Orleans is still flawed," said Dr. Romell Madison.
A message left after hours seeking comment on the letter wasn't immediately returned by Justice Department staff in Washington.
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten in New Orleans said he hadn't been formally notified of Bigelow's ruling and wouldn't comment on it. Letten said he has told the Madison family that his office would not intervene while the district attorney's office had an "active case ongoing."
Bigelow ordered bracelets used to track the officers' whereabouts removed but did not remove the bail each paid until the district attorney decides what to do.
Police spokesman Bob Young said the officers would return to regular jobs quickly, but he was not sure where they would be placed.
Members of the group Safe Streets, Strong Communities attended the hearing and demonstrated outside the courthouse after the ruling.
"The Danziger case is yet another example of a police department in crisis and a criminal justice system unwilling to keep them in check," said Norris Henderson, co-director of the group.
The case was the latest in a series of high-profile, emotional criminal prosecutions tied to Katrina that have fizzled.
Last year a grand jury refused to charge a doctor and two nurses in connection with the deaths of four patients at a New Orleans hospital after the storm. A jury also returned a not-guilty verdict against the operators of a St. Bernard Parish nursing home where more than 30 residents died in the storm's flooding.

Wire Service
 

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Discussion Starter · #2 ·
Feds to investigate NOPD 'bridge shootings'

By Mary Foster
The Associated Press Writer
NEW ORLEANS - The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney's office in New Orleans will investigate the fatal shootings which occurred on a city bridge following Hurricane Katrina.
"In the best spirit of law enforcement coordination, and at the request of the victim's families, the New Orleans District Attorney has referred the matter to the United States Department of Justice for review," U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said in a statement.
Letten said his office, the Justice Department and the FBI would take "as much time and resources as necessary to determine whether there are any prosecutable violations of federal criminal laws in this matter."
Tuesday's announcement follows the dismissal of charges against seven New Orleans police officers accused of gunning down two men on a bridge in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Police officials have acknowledged the officers shot people from both sides of the bridge, but said they were shot at first.
Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius Jr., Officer Anthony Villavaso II and former Officer Robert Faulcon Jr. each faced first-degree murder and attempted murder charges in the case. Bigelow also threw out attempted first-degree murder charges against Officer Mike Hunter Jr. and Officer Robert Barrios and attempted second-degree murder charges against Officer Ignatius Hills.
Faulcon resigned from the police force; the other officers were assigned to desk duty after their indictment in December 2006.
"I am totally shocked," said attorney Franz Zibilich, who represents Faulcon. "The state never had jurisdiction over civil rights violations. And it's been three years. You would think if the Feds were interested they would have investigated long before this.
In throwing out the murder and attempted murder charges on Sept. 13, State District Judge Raymond Bigelow agreed with defense arguments that prosecutors violated state law by divulging secret grand jury testimony to a police officer who was a witness in the case.
"The violation is clear," Bigelow said in making the ruling.
Survivors of the Sept. 4, 2005, shootings have said the officers fired at unarmed people crossing the Danziger Bridge to get food at a grocery store. Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, and James Brissette, 19, were shot and killed by police. Four other people were wounded.
The officers acknowledged shooting at people on the bridge, but said they did so only after taking fire.
After Bigelow quashed the indictments, religious and civil rights groups in New Orleans called for the district attorney to refile charges against the officers.
The family of one of the men shot had also asked for the Justice Department investigation.

Wire service
 
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