The four former New Orlean police officers – Kenneth Bowen, Robert Faulcon, Robert Gisevius and Anthony Villavaso – were sentenced by a federal judge to between 38 and 65 years in prison.
Retired Sgt. Arthur “Archie” Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shootings, was sentenced to six years in prison – a sentence below the federal guidelines, reports the Huffington Post. Kaufman wasn’t charged in the shootings but was convicted of helping orchestrate the cover-up.
The New Orleans police case was the “most significant police misconduct prosecution since Rodney King,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas Perez said, referring to the beating of a black motorist by Los Angeles police officers in 1991 that was caught on videotape, tells Reuters.
According to CNN, the former police officers were accused of opening fire on an unarmed family, killing 17-year-old James Brissette and wounding four others.
Minutes later, Robert Faulcon shot and killed Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man described by Justice Department officials as having severe mental disabilities and who was trying to flee the scene when he was shot.
The five men sentenced on Wednesday were among a dozen officers who responded to a radio call that police were being shot at near the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans just days after Hurricane Katrina.
The officers sped to the site. Witnesses testified that when the officers arrived, they jumped out of the truck and repeatedly fired assault rifles, shotguns and handguns at civilians walking on the bridge.
Brissette, 17, and Madison, 40, were killed in the shooting spree.
In reports filed by the officers or on their behalf, they claimed they shot only after being threatened or fired on and that they had seen weapons in the victims’ hands.
During the trial, the defense asked the jury to consider the stressful circumstances the officers were operating under following Katrina.
However, the sentences were significantly lower than what prosecutors had recommended. They had asked the judge to sentence the four shooters to prison terms ranging from nearly 60 years for Villavaso to 87 years for Faulcon.
During a lecture that lasted roughly two hours, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt questioned the credibility of officers who cut deals and testified against the defendants during last year’s trial.
“Citing witnesses for perjury at this trial would be like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500,” Engelhardt said.
The judge questioned why prosecutors sought a 20-year prison sentence for Kaufman when Michael Lohman, who was the highest-ranking officer at the scene of the shooting and assigned Kaufman to investigate, got just four years after pleading guilty to participating in the cover-up.
“The buck started and stopped with him,” Engelhardt said.
Romell Madison, brother of victim Ronald Madison, told reporters after Wednesday’s proceedings that his family was happy with the sentences, even though prosecutors had to enter into plea agreements with several other officers to obtain the convictions.
“I think it made a big difference, even though they did give them lower sentences, that they did come forth and testify to get the truth out,” Madison said. “At least we got to the truth.”
Lance Madison, who was with his brother when Ronald Madison was killed, and who was later arrested and jailed on false charges, told the judge on Wednesday that “I truly don’t know why I am alive today.”
“This has been a long and painful six-and-a-half years,” said Lance Madison, whose mentally disabled brother, Ronald, was killed. “The people of New Orleans and my family are ready for justice.”
He addressed each defendant individually, including Faulcon, who shot his brother: “When I look at you, my pain becomes unbearable. You took the life of an angel and basically ripped my heart out.”
“These officers shot Ronald down like an animal,” he said. Turning to the defendants, he said: “You are responsible for the nightmares that have devastated my family.”
Steve London, one of Kaufman’s attorneys, said his client was pleased that the judge gave him a sentence below the guidelines, which had called for a sentence ranging from a little over eight years to a little over 10.
“This judge recognized that the government put liars on the stand to testify and convict other people,” London said.
Wednesday’s sentencing isn’t the final chapter in the case. The convicted officers are expected to appeal, and Gerard Dugue, a retired sergeant, is scheduled to be retried in May on charges stemming from his alleged role in the cover-up.