New Orleans: Five New Orleans police officers indiscriminately shot unarmed residents during the chaos unleashed by Hurricane Katrina and got colleagues to help cover up the crime, prosecutors have said.
"Shoot first, and ask questions later," federal prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein said during opening arguments of a high-profile trial of the officers. "That`s how this whole case got started."
Bernstein described a "seemingly endless barrage of gunshots" that left two people dead and four badly wounded in a wide-ranging conspiracy that lasted almost four years.
The deadly 2005 shooting on the Danziger Bridge came to epitomise the city`s failure to protect its citizens and exposed deep-rooted corruption in the police department, which critics say remains unaddressed.
Fear soon followed the deadly flood waters which swallowed 80 percent of New Orleans and left thousands stranded on their rooftops after Katrina smashed through the city`s poorly maintained levees on August 29, 2005.
Reports of widespread looting and armed gangs roaming the city shifted the government`s already botched response from humanitarian aid to a military operation.
In the following days, six people -- most African American -- were killed under suspicious circumstances in incidents involving police. Scores more were injured.
The Danziger Bridge case is the most notorious of at least nine incidents being investigated by federal agents.
Four of the officers facing trial -- Sergeants Gisevius and Bowen and Officers Villavaso and Faulcon -- were charged in 2007, by then-district attorney Eddie Jordan.
A judge threw out the case, citing prosecutorial misconduct, but the Justice Department took it up soon after, launching a vigorous investigation that uncovered what prosecutors have called a wide-ranging conspiracy.
The fifth defendant currently on trial, Sergeant Kaufman, was not involved in the shooting, but faces charges for participating in the cover-up.
Defence attorneys gave a full-throated defence of their clients, depicting them as hero cops in a frightening situation.
"These men are innocent," declared Paul Fleming, a lawyer representing Robert Faulcon, almost shouting in the small courtroom. "These five had one thing in common -- they stayed."
He called the officers "proactive”, saying, "They go out and get things done. They go out and get the bad guys."
Frank DeSalvo, the attorney who represents Sergeant Kenneth Bowen and has defended many NOPD officers in the past, called the government`s case a work of "fiction" and compared it to a John Grisham novel.
Eric Hessler, representing Sergeant Robert Gisevius, asked the jury to imagine the post-Katrina fear and chaos, saying that two of Gisevius` coworkers had committed suicide in the days before the incident. "You can`t judge by today`s standards," he said. "You have to go back to August 29."
Tim Meche, representing Officer Anthony Villavaso, told the jury they needed to enter his clients heart and mind, and spent much of his opening describing Villavaso`s childhood. "He was an only child," said Meche, adding that Villavaso was "doted on" by his parents, "but not spoiled”.
Defence attorneys disparaged the government for bringing the case. Attorney Steve London, representing Sergeant Arthur Kaufman, denied all charges that his client had invented witnesses and manufactured evidence, saying the witnesses do in fact exist, and the evidence he is accused of planting was in fact found at the crime scene.
Defence attorneys also said that many of the government`s witnesses were liars, especially singling out former officers Michael Hunter, Michael Lohman and Jeffrey Lehrmann, three officers set to testify against their former colleagues, and Lance Madison, a 20-year FedEx employee with no criminal record who watched his brother die that day.
Bernstein said ample evidence would be provided in the testimony of those caught in the crossfire, video from a nearby television crew and statements of three officers who have already pleaded guilty.
She described the terror experienced by one family, the Bartholomews, cowering behind a barricade as they "continued to feel more bullets rip through their flesh”.
Susan Bartholomew, who had her arm shot off of her body on the bridge, was the first prosecution witness. In a voice at times tearful and quiet, and at other times defiant, she described her terror on that fateful day, as she lay down behind a concrete barrier and felt bullets penetrate her body. "I was scared," she said, when asked about what was going through her mind that day. "I was praying to God."
Bartholomew broke into tears as she described her daughter Lesha, 17, trying to shield her mother`s body with her own. "She tried to prevent me from continuing being shot," said Bartholomew.
Later, she said, police visited her three times in the hospital while she was recovering, asking questions about the incident in a hostile way. "I felt threatened," she said. "I felt intimidated”.