On December 29, 2013, the final episode of the critically acclaimed drama series, Treme, aired on HBO. Created by David Simon and Eric Overmeyer, the series premiered on April 11, 2010 and focused on life after Hurricane Katrina in a famous neighborhood of New Orleans known as “Treme.” Police corruption was a consistent undercurrent of the show, especially that which occurred in the aftermath of Katrina.
It was on August 29, 2005 that Hurricane Katrina thundered ashore from the Gulf of Mexico on the east side of New Orleans. Before it passed into a tropical depression, it left nearly 2000 confirmed dead along the Gulf coast, most in and around New Orleans. Nobody knows how many bodies were swept into the Gulf as flood waters receded. What is known is that, within hours, 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded due to a catastrophic failure of the Mississippi River levee system.
Lawlessness and chaos enveloped every segment of NOLA as the polluted waters started to rise. Panic, fear, and desperation gripped the entire city, including its roughly 1500-man police force which had been long known as one of the most corrupt law enforcement agencies in the United States. Estimates after the flood waters receded said that as many as 500 officers abandoned their posts and fled the city shortly after the hurricane hit. Scores of others who remained engaged in some form of misconduct, neglected their duties, failed to protect city residents, and, worse of all, gunned down or killed people without any good reason.
One of the worst incidents of police murder was the “Danziger Bridge” killings—a bridge that connected sections of New Orleans known as Gentilly and New Orleans East.
On the morning of September 4, 2005, two civilians were gunned down and four others were severely wounded in a hail of gunfire from a group of New Orleans police officers. The officers arrived at the scene after receiving a report from a fellow officer about incoming gunfire. Within minutes officers Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavasco, and Robert Faulcon arrived at the scene. They opened fire with assault rifles and a shotgun on the unarmed Bartholomew family. A 17-year-old family friend named James Brissette was killed in the initial burst of gunfire and four others were wounded.
Ronald and Lance Madison, brothers, fled the scene but were chased down by officers Gisevius and Faulcon in an unmarked police car. Officer Faulcon then shot Ronald Madison, who was mentally retarded and who later died from his wounds. Before he died, Ronald was stomped on his back (where he had been shot five times) by officer Bowen, and Lance was taken into custody for attempted murder of a police officer.
In the wake of this horrific tragedy, the NOPD came under withering criticism from the media, other law enforcement agencies, and the general public. The Danziger Bridge shooting became the focus of the widespread misconduct the police had engaged in during the hurricane and attempts to cover it up afterwards. A little more than a year after Katrina seven NOPD officers were indicted by a state grand jury for murder and attempted murder in connection with the Danziger Bridge shooting, including the four named above as well as officers Ignatius Hills, Michael Hunter and Robert Barrios. In August 2008, the state indictments were dismissed because officer Bowen had been “compelled” to testify before the grand jury in violation of a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
Public outrage was both swift and intense. The U.S. Justice Department intervened, securing civil rights indictments against the officers in July 2010. The Feds had been monitoring the state court proceedings since November 2006.
Following a lengthy multi-week trial before the federal court during the summer of 2011, the four officers directly involved in the shootings were convicted and sentenced to stiff terms of imprisonment: Faulcon-65 years; Bowen—40 years; Gisevius—40 years; and Villavasco—38 years. Five other officers were convicted of engaging in a cover-up of the shootings, and received lesser sentences. Civil rights advocates and federal prosecutors joined together to celebrate the convictions and sentences as a major triumph for civil justice and good law enforcement. Prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office were giddy with success. U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said the verdicts sent a message to all “public officials, and especially law enforcement officers, that they will be held accountable and that any abuse of power will have serious consequences.”
But as often is the case in successful criminal prosecutions at both the federal and state levels, the success is too often achieved through prosecutorial misconduct as was illustrated in the case of former Republican Sen. Ted Stevens whose October 2008 conviction for lying on ethics forms was tossed out by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in April 2009 for prosecutorial misconduct. Judge Sullivan commented on the misconduct saying: “In nearly 25 years on the bench, I’ve never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I’ve seen in this case.”
In a 129-page ruling issued on September 17, 2013, New Orleans U.S. District Court Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt made similar observations about federal prosecutors in the Danziger Bridge shooting case. Reversing all of the officers’ convictions for unprecedented prosecutorial misconduct, Judge Engelhardt observed: “ .. This Court is unaware of any case … wherein prosecutors acting with anonymity used social media to circumvent ethical obligations, professional responsibilities, and even to commit violations of the Code of Federal Regulations. Hence, to this Court’s knowledge, there is no case similar, in nature or scope, to this bizarre and appalling turn of events.”
It seems that as soon as U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and his assistant prosecutors took up the mantle to hold corrupt police accountable for their misconduct, at least two of those prosecutors engaged in misconduct almost as egregious as some of the misconduct engaged in by the corrupt cops. The case against the officers began to unravel in May 2008 when defense attorneys filed a stinging motion for new trial arguing that the U.S. Attorney’s office had “engaged in a secret public relations campaign” designed to make the NOPD “the household name for corruption,” inflame public opinion against the officers, and promote the government’s theory of the case “before anyone set foot in a courtroom.” More significantly, the defense attorneys charged that the government or someone associated with the government improperly disclosed to the media “the government’s theories regarding the defendants’ alleged guilt, the status of plea negotiations, and the upcoming guilty plea of cooperating defendant and former NOPD lieutenant Michael Lohman, all in violation of Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.”
As Judge Engelhardt delved into the charges of misconduct, he quickly discovered that the level of wrongdoing was more sweeping than anyone imagined. The Justice Department’s office of professional responsibility launched an internal investigation and a U.S. Attorney from Georgia was appointed to not only take over the case but investigate Letten’s office. U.S. Attorney Letten and two of his assistants promptly resigned. The investigation into the misconduct in the Danziger Bridge shooting continues today.
One of the most repulsive instances of misconduct was that one or more individuals in the U.S. Attorney’s Office submitted anonymous “comments” to media websites and other online social media revealing confidential information about the case against the indicted officers, all designed, as the defense attorneys charged, to inflame the public against the officers and deprive them of a fair trial. Equally egregious was the fact that prosecutors also threaten to charge other police officers with perjury if they tried to give testimony favorable to the indicted officers.
What took place in the New Orleans U.S. Attorney’s office in the Danziger Bridge shooting case was a pattern of lawlessness, misconduct, and corruption comparable to what the federal prosecutors were trying to eliminate in the NOPD. U.S. Attorney Letten should have personally heeded his own warning, and made it clear to his assistants, that all “public officials … will be held accountable and that any abuse of power will have serious consequences.” This accountability could very well lead to future criminal indictments of some prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office.
One of the officers, Arthur Kaufman, was released on bond last October pending his retrial. The remaining four officers’ requests for release on bond pending new trial were denied in early January. The U.S. department of Justice has appealed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals seeking to reverse the Judge’s orders for new trial.
Retrials may prove impossible due to the taint and corruption of the evidence by either current or former prosecutors involved in the case. At the end of the day, the Danziger Bridge shooting case is, and will remain, a tragedy within a tragedy, reflecting the very worst in the character of the public officials charged with the awesome responsibility of upholding law and order.
Meanwhile, the scandal has spread to other criminal cases upon which the discredited prosecutors worked and about which prejudicial, anonymous online comments were also made. Where there is smoke there is fire…