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Judge Drastically Reduces Jail Time For Officers Who Shot Unarmed People Fleeing Hurricane Katrina

Tabari Simpson, of the group ‘Community United for Change,’ protests outside Federal court in New Orleans, Monday, June 27, 2011, on the opening day of the trial for five current or former New Orleans police officers charged in deadly shootings of unarmed residents on the Danziger bridge in Hurricane Katrina’s chaotic aftermath. Five former officers already have pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up to make it appear that police were justified in fatally shooting two people and wounding four others. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/GERALD HERBERT
Tabari Simpson, of the group ‘Community United for Change,’ protests outside Federal court in New Orleans, Monday, June 27, 2011, on the opening day of the trial for five current or former New Orleans police officers charged in deadly shootings of unarmed residents on the Danziger bridge in Hurricane Katrina’s chaotic aftermath. Five former officers already have pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up to make it appear that police were justified in fatally shooting two people and wounding four others. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/GERALD HERBERT

The people on the bridge were unarmed and frightened, fleeing homes left uninhabitable by Hurricane Katrina. Suddenly, a squad of plainclothes police officers drove up and opened fire, killing two and wounding four. The officers later conspired to cover up the whole affair with planted evidence and fabricated stories.

The officers on New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge that day in 2005 were sentenced back in 2011 to decades in prison. But earlier this year, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed their guilty verdicts to be overturned, paving the way for a new trial on the basis that federal prosecutors anonymously commented on stories about the case online.

On Wednesday, the former officers struck a deal with prosecutors that allowed them to plead guilty to lesser charges and significantly reduce their time behind bars. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled in favor of the deal’s terms, sentencing defendants to 3 to 12 years.

“Hopefully today will bring further closure to the victims of these crimes and this city,” he said.

Engelhardt who originally ordered the new trial, oversaw the deal, which shaved decades from the former officers’ original sentences. The deal cut 40-year sentences for Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius, Jr. to ten years each with credit for time served. Robert Faulcon, Jr., who was facing the lengthiest sentence at 65 years, subsequently faced 12 years with credit for time served. Anthony Villavaso and Arthur Kaufman, who were serving 38 years and six years respectively, got seven and three years. All the officers will also get five years of supervised release.

The former officers have been locked up for almost six years, and are now decades closer to release.

Four New Orleans police officers are seen in a combination of photos as they arrive for booking in New Orleans. From left: Robert Faulcon Jr., Robert Gisevius Jr., Kenneth Bowen, and Anthony Villavaso II. CREDIT: AP Photos
Four New Orleans police officers are seen in a combination of photos as they arrive for booking in New Orleans. From left: Robert Faulcon Jr., Robert Gisevius Jr., Kenneth Bowen, and Anthony Villavaso II. CREDIT: AP Photos

When handing down the original sentences in 2011, Engelhardt went on at length about the dangers of being a police officer and called out the names of five police officers who were killed in an unrelated 1973 sniper shooting, which the judge said had influenced his own views of police.

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At the 2011 hearing, he bemoaned the fact that mandatory minimums were forcing him to dole out so much prison time. He also blasted the prosecutors’ handling of the case. In some cases, higher-up supervisors or colleagues agreed to cooperate with prosecutors against the officers in exchange for more lenient sentences for their own roles in the cover-up. In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans police were responsible for a slew of extrajudicial killings. In many cases officers claimed the victim had a weapon or had threatened them in some way, though they had no evidence to back them up. Despite the murkiness of many of these killings, prosecutors and police officials looked the other way for years. When the horror stories surfaced in the press, feds launched a probe and the city entered into a consent decree with the Department of Justice to reform police practices.