This week federal prosecutors in New Orleans finished presenting their case against police officers involved in the infamous Danziger Bridge shooting in the days after Hurricane Katrina. Four police officers are charged with shooting six unarmed civilians, killing two. A fifth officer is accused of helping them cover up their crimes. On Wednesday, the trial culminated in final arguments, leaving the case in a jury’s hands. A verdict could come as early as today.* We are joined in New Orleans by independent journalist Jordan Flaherty, who has been in the courtroom following the case, and Norris Henderson, a longtime community organizer and former co-director of Safe Streets/Strong Communities, a group that played a key role in helping the families of the victims in this case come forward to seek justice. "At the closing statement, one of the most moving moments was Bobbi Bernstein, the federal prosecutor, said, 'The real heroes are these families who continued struggling against a justice system that had failed them for all these years.'" says Flaherty.
*UPDATE: The five New Orleans police officers have been convicted in the deaths of two people and the injuring of four others on the Danziger Bridge in the days after Hurricane Katrina.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We stay in New Orleans, where federal prosecutors have just finished presenting their case against police officers involved in the infamous Danziger Bridge shooting in the days after Hurricane Katrina. Four police officers are charged with shooting six unarmed civilians, killing two. A fifth officer is accused of helping them cover up their crimes. This Wednesday, the trial culminated in final arguments, leaving the case in a jury’s hands. A verdict could come down as early as today.
Attorney General Eric Holder first announced the charges last July in New Orleans.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: The Justice Department will hold those who violate the law responsible for their actions. Put simply, we will not tolerate wrongdoing by those who are sworn to protect the public. This will not stand. And we will hold all offenders accountable.
AMY GOODMAN: Four New Orleans police officers—Robert Gisevius, Kenneth Bowen, Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon—face life in prison if convicted in the Danziger Bridge shooting. Sergeant Arthur Kaufman, charged in the cover-up conspiracy, could receive a maximum of 120 years. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is likely to place the New Orleans Police Department under some form of federal oversight later this year.
To talk about the issue raised in the trial of police misconduct and what’s been happening in this trial, we’re joined in New Orleans by independent journalist Jordan Flaherty, who’s been in the courtroom following the case almost every day. His latest book is called Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six.
We’re also joined by Norris Henderson, longtime community organizer, former co-director of Safe Streets/Strong Communities, a group dedicated to transforming the criminal justice system in New Orleans. He played a key role in helping the families of the victims in this case come forward to seek justice.
Jordan, let’s begin with you. You’ve been in the courtroom almost every day. Talk about what’s happened in this case.
JORDAN FLAHERTY: Well, Amy, thank you for covering this. This has really laid out two very different versions of what happened after Hurricane Katrina, and I think this has far-reaching implications for not just the police department in New Orleans, but this overall narrative of what happened in the Katrina period. In many ways, I think you could say the media has done more damage to New Orleans than Hurricane Katrina, with depicting people of New Orleans, in those days after the storm, as looters, as thugs, as armed gangs. And so, the two versions of reality that we’ve seen presented in this trial is the defense version, which says these officers are heroes, they were dealing with a lawless city, with people that were shooting at officers, that were shooting at rescue workers; the prosecution case is saying that it’s actually the police that were shooting people and that the people of the city were the ones that were in danger from a violent police force. District Attorney Eddie Jordan, when I talked to him recently, said a similar thing, that there was more crimes committed by police after the storm than by the people of the city. And over and over again, the Defense Department lawyers have said, "These officers were heroes. They were proactive. They were the ones that were going out and getting the bad guys."
And at the closing statement, one of the most moving moments was Bobbi Bernstein, the federal prosecutor, said, "The real heroes are these families who continued struggling against a justice system that had failed them for all these years." And that’s why it’s so important that you have Norris here, as well. It’s advocates like Norris, and these families themselves—the Bartholomew family, the Madison family—in other cases, you’ve covered the Glover family—who were out there for years struggling when every single check and balance in the city failed them. When the U.S. attorney failed to investigate, the coroner’s office went along with the police—official police department story. The media was refusing to tell these stories for years. And it’s really because these families fought against this wall of official silence for years that this day in court is finally happening. And it’s so important that we’re finally getting these stories out.
And, you know, the details of Danziger, it’s been so moving hearing, for example, Lesha Bartholomew, who was 17 years old, describing this hail of gunfire that she faced as she crawled over to shield her mother’s body with her own. Her mother had her arm shot off of her body. Her cousin, Jose Holmes, was shot point-blank in the stomach and needed a colostomy bag [inaudible]—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly, Jordan, when this—Jordan, explain exactly when this happened. Describe the scene, as you understood it, on the Danziger Bridge—the date, the people who were there.
JORDAN FLAHERTY: September 4th, 2005, days after Hurricane Katrina. Danziger Bridge is a bridge between the New Orleans East neighborhood and the Gentilly neighborhood. These families were crossing the bridge, unarmed African-American civilians. Police officers hear a call that there are shooters in that area. They roll up in a rented Budget rental truck, and they come out and begin shooting. And they shoot shot after shot after shot. There’s actually a very grainy videotape that shows at least a minute of shooting, continuing on and on.
The officers shot the Bartholomew family in a hail of bullets, as they crouched and hid, and continued firing, continued firing. Further up the bridge was the Madison family, Ronald Madison and his brother Lance Madison—Ronald Madison, 40 years old, with the mental capacity of an eight-year-old. Ronald Madison was shot in the back by one officer. Another officer ran up and stomped on him and kicked him until he was dead. Lance Madison was arrested.
Officers looked at the scene, saw bullet casings everywhere. They found no guns. This is the prosecution case. They found no guns anywhere from any of the people that had been killed, and they decided at that moment that they needed to start a cover-up. They invented witnesses. They had a series of secret meetings where they wrote and rewrote their versions of what happened in the case. They conspired to invent witnesses, to plant evidence, to basically hide their crime. And they continued doing that for years. And it involved not just officers, but sergeants and lieutenants, who worked to hide this case for years. And it’s really only because these families continued fighting, and because you had folks like A.C. Thompson, who talked about these stories, and folks like Norris, who were out pressuring to get these stories out when nobody wanted to hear them.
AMY GOODMAN: Norris Henderson, talk about the families that have been so deeply affected by this and the significance of this case in the New Orleans community.
NORRIS HENDERSON: First, you know, I applaud the efforts of the families to stand up. This city has a long history of police abuse. And one of the biggest things has been—the reason it’s been going along for so long, that families have been intimidated to even speak out against this. But the Madison family, I just applaud Romell Madison, because he was adamant about, "I will seek justice for my brother." When the initial accounts started coming in about what had happened on the bridge, well, they knew their brothers, and it was like, "Our brothers would not do nothing like that."
And so, we was already pushing a campaign to find us a new police chief and to create a independent police monitor, because here in New Orleans we have a Public Integrity Bureau, where you go to the police to complain about the police. We always ran into a roadblock. And so, we just consciously, you know, realizing the damage that had been done, not just to those families, but to a whole bunch of families who had never stood up and were afraid to stand up, that we had to push this. And we started pushing.
Luckily, we got the local district attorney to indict these same officers. But what happened then, because of collusion inside of the criminal justice system here, one of the local judges dismissed the case, threw it out. We started lobbying the U.S. attorney’s office, all to no avail. Dr. Madison was just persistent. He was like, "I will leave no stone unturned until I seek some justice for my family."
The Brissette family and the Bartholomew family, they were kind of like, you know, just low-key about their involvement, because people were intimidated. One of the striking things about this city, during the ’90s, a lady, Kim Graves, filed a complaint against a police officer. And what happened, the folks at the Public Integrity Bureau gave this police officer the heads up that somebody had filed the complaint, and he contracted with a drug dealer that had been working for him to assassinate the lady. And so, that has put a chilling effect on people in this city, that if you speak out against the cops, bad things can happen to you. You can lose your life. So, operating under that backdrop, it was really challenging to get people out and get engaged and to come forward.
But when we met the Madison family, it was kind of strange, because one of the things was, the attorney that that family had hired was a person that we knew and knew the work that we was doing, community-organizing around police corruption, and made the connection with us. And we got 100 percent behind the family, going to court with them, advising them about—because these were folks who had had never in their lives had any contact with the criminal justice system. And so, we got behind the family, started educating them about it.
I think one of the most striking moments for us was, we encouraged the family to come with us to the U.S. Social Forum in 2007. And at that, one of the breakout sessions was about law enforcement violence and how families cope with that and deal with that. And Amadou Diallo’s mother was there. And so, that really inspired and empowered, you know, our folks, the Madison family, some other families who had been—suffered law enforcement violence. And so, we came back home with a resolve that, by hook or crook, we’re going to find a way to get this story out.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you—
NORRIS HENDERSON: And so, we kept talking—
AMY GOODMAN: Norris Henderson, I want to thank you for being with us. I’m sorry this segment has come to an end, but we will certainly update our listeners and viewers at our website, democracynow.org, on the verdict in this Danziger Bridge shooting. Norris Henderson, longtime community organizer in New Orleans, and, as well, Jordan Flaherty, author of Floodlines, a New Orleans-based journalist.