In a courtroom in a New Orleans federal court Wednesday, four of
the shooters and one of the supervisors admitted their guilt for the
first time. The road to that admission was tortuous, for the
families, for the city and for the New Orleans Police Department, in
a case that stands among the most significant police civil rights
abuses in the United States.
The victims, all black, all unarmed, were trying to survive the
hurricane’s wake on Sunday, September 4, 2005, when a pack of
officers, believing they were racing to the scene of a police
shootout, barreled toward them in a commandeered rental truck.
Before the truck screeched to a halt, the driver, an ex-Marine,
leaned out the window and pulled the trigger of a handgun. He
steered with his right hand, and fired what he later called “warning
shots” with his left.
Officers, some black, some white, spilled from the truck and aimed
fire at eight residents on the Danziger Bridge. By the time the
shooting stopped, Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old with the mental
development of a six-year-old, was dead, seven gunshot wounds in his
back. On the other side of the bridge, gunshot wounds pierced the
slender frame of James Brissette Jr., 17, killing him.
Susan Bartholomew, 38, was trying to crawl on the pavement, her
right arm blown apart. Her 17-year-old daughter Lesha, who lay atop
her mother to protect her from the bullets, required her own
life-saving surgery. So did her cousin Jose Holmes Jr., 19, wheezing
for breath and begging paramedics not to give up on him. Father “Big
Leonard” Bartholomew Sr. had a gunshot wound in his head. As son
“Little Leonard” Bartholomew, 14, raced from the bridge, an officer
aimed his gun at the boy’s back and fired twice. He missed.
As paramedics tended to the victims, police began hatching a
cover-up. They would plant a gun, invent phony witnesses and craft a
fiction portraying the victims as criminals, officers later
testified. That morning, as his brother Ronald lay dead, Lance
Madison, a onetime NFL wide receiver who stayed back during Katrina
to watch over his younger sibling, was handcuffed and charged with
attempted murder of police. He spent 25 days in jail on false
This week, 10 years and seven months after the shots on the bridge,
officers stood in court and admitted guilt.
They were given prison sentences ranging from 3 to 12 years, decades
less than the officers had received after they were initially
convicted in August 2011. But a bizarre online scandal involving
prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office put those convictions in
jeopardy, opening the door to a second trial.
The families had embraced with relief in 2011. A federal jury
convicted the five officers following a trial in which five other
officers, in pleading guilty to their own roles, detailed the
That closure was short lived. After officers were sentenced to
prison, one for 65 years, defense lawyers sought a new trial. The
attorneys contended that anonymous online comments criticizing
police – many written by Sal Perricone, a New Orleans federal
prosecutor not involved in the case – impeded their clients’ chances
for a fair trial.
GIRDING FOR A RETRIAL
The bid for a new trial was a long shot, but the presiding federal
judge, Kurt Engelhardt Jr., granted it in September 2013, saying the
online comments by Perricone and two other federal lawyers impaired
justice. The Justice Department acknowledged the comments were
improper, but said they had no bearing on the case or the verdict.
Last August, a federal appeals court upheld Engelhardt’s order for a
new trial by a 2-1 vote. In February, the full appeals court
deadlocked 7-7 on the government’s request that it reconsider the
earlier appeals decision. That ruling left everyone girding for a
Instead, sparing the victims from having to go through another
trial, and sparing themselves decades behind bars, the officers
pleaded guilty to three federal charges – deprivation of rights,
obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Their
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* Robert Faulcon Jr., 12 years, down from 65 imposed after the jury
* Kenneth Bowen, 10 years, down from 40;
* Robert Gisevius Jr., 10 years, down from 40;
* Anthony Villavaso II, 7 years, down from 38;
Each was given credit for time served since 2010, meaning Villavaso
could be released this year and the other three officers in a few
Also sentenced was Arthur Kaufman, a former police sergeant who
played a key role in devising the cover-up - including, according to
other officers who previously testified, pulling a gun from his
garage and claiming it was Lance Madison’s. He pleaded guilty this
week to two obstruction of justice charges. Kaufman was given 3
years, down from 6.
“I finally got what I wanted. Someone confessed, ‘I did it,’” said
Sherrel Johnson, mother of James “JJ” Brissette Jr., the slain teen,
who dreamed of driving to prom in a stretch limousine.
Brissette was close friends with Jose Holmes, the nephew of Susan
and Leonard Bartholomew. Brissette bumped into Holmes on the streets
of New Orleans after venturing out one day after the hurricane. That
Sunday morning, the group of six - the Bartholomew parents, two of
their children, plus Jose and JJ - planned to walk over the bridge
to buy cleaning supplies for their decrepit hotel rooms, along with
medicine for Susan’s ailing mother.
"NOT ABOUT REVENGE"
Lance and Ronald Madison had holed up in their brother Romell’s
dental office aside the bridge after the storm and were trying to
make their way to the family home about two miles away. They planned
to hop on bikes and pedal as far from the misery as possible. They
couldn’t pass the flooded streets, and were walking back over the
Danziger Bridge to return to the dental office, passing the
Bartholomew family along the way, when the rental truck filled with
officers barreled toward them.
With Katrina churning toward New Orleans, the brothers had stayed
back. Ronald Madison would not leave his two dachshunds behind.
Lance stayed to watch over his developmentally disabled younger
brother in Lance’s two-story condo. Katrina had forced the brothers
to the condo roof, where they begged for a helicopter rescue that
did not come. They took five hours to make their way to Romell’s
dental office, where they survived until that Sunday morning.
The families' questioning of the police story helped expose the
cover-up. Along the way, the accused officers were paraded as heroes
in the city streets, and initial charges filed in state court were
dismissed. Now, with the criminal case closed, the families can
pursue civil cases brought against the city.
“For the families, it was always about responsibility. It was not
about revenge,” said Shannon Fay, a Baton Rouge attorney who helped
fight the criminal charges against Lance Madison.
Madison said he was thankful the officers admitted guilt while their
elderly mother, Fuki Madison, is still alive.
“I hope and pray that no other family ever has to go through what we
have gone through,” he said.
(Edited by Michael Williams)
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