NEW ORLEANS – Jurors deliberated for several hours Wednesday without deciding the fate of five current or former police officers charged in deadly shootings on a New Orleans bridge in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Deliberations are scheduled to resume Thursday. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt read instructions about the 25-count indictment before the jury began deliberating Wednesday after weeks of testimony and several hours of closing arguments.
Prosecutors contend the officers shot unarmed people without justification and without warning, killing two and wounding four others Sept. 5, 2005, then embarked on a cover-up involving made-up witnesses, falsified reports and a planted gun.
Defense attorneys countered that the officers were returning fire on the city's Danziger Bridge and reasonably believed their lives were in danger as they rushed to respond to another officer's distress call less than a week after Katrina.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Theodore Carter said in closing arguments that police had no justification for shooting unarmed, defenseless people.
"It was unreasonable for these officers to fire even one shot, let alone dozens," he told jurors.
All told, jurors heard five weeks of testimony by roughly 60 witnesses in the Justice Department's case against former officer Robert Faulcon, Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, Officer Anthony Villavaso and retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman.
Faulcon, Gisevius, Bowen and Villavaso are charged with civil rights violations in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old James Brissette on the east side of the bridge. Faulcon also is charged with gunning down 40-year-old Ronald Madison, a mentally disabled man, on the west side.
If the officers are convicted in the shootings, jurors must decide if the deaths "involve circumstances constituting murder," which would carry stiffer prison sentences.
All four of those officers also are charged with taking part in the alleged cover-up. Kaufman, who investigated the shootings, is charged only in the alleged cover-up.
Defense attorneys say police were shot at on the bridge before they returned fire.
"None of these people intentionally decided to go out there and cause people harm," said Timothy Meche, Villavaso's lawyer. He said they did their best, operating under "terrible, horrible circumstances."
Eric Hessler, Gisevius' attorney, accused the government of ignoring evidence that somebody shot at the bridge from a grassy area nearby.
Carter, however, said the claim that police encountered armed residents is discredited by the officers' failure to recover any weapons.
"This wasn't a gunfight. This was carnage," the prosecutor said.
On the morning of the shootings, a group of officers piled into a rental truck and drove to the bridge in response to another officer's distress call.
On the east side, officers allegedly opened fire on a group of people without issuing warnings or identifying themselves, according to prosecutors. The prosecutors say Bowen leaned over a concrete barrier and randomly sprayed gunfire at wounded, unarmed people seeking cover.
"There's no excuse for that. There was no threat," Carter said. "What is that? That's attempted murder."
Faulcon, the only defendant to testify, said he was "paralyzed with fear" when he shot and killed Madison as he chased him and his brother, Lance Madison. Faulcon didn't dispute that he shot an unnamed man in the back, but said he had believed Ronald Madison was armed and posed a threat.
Prosecutors contend Kaufman retrieved a gun from his home weeks after the shootings and turned it in as evidence, trying to pass it off as a gun belonging to Lance Madison. He also is accused of fabricating two nonexistent witnesses to the shootings.
Kaufman's attorney, Stephen London, said another investigator, retired Sgt. Gerard Dugue, was responsible for the contents of the department's official report on the shootings. London told jurors they heard proof that Kaufman didn't write any false reports.
"He not only didn't sign anything, they don't have anybody who puts his finger anywhere near that," London added.
Dugue also is charged in the case but is scheduled to be tried separately later.
In 2006, seven officers were indicted in state court on murder or attempted murder charges. After a state judge dismissed those charges in 2008, the Justice Department's civil rights division opened an investigation.
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