NEW ORLEANS – A day after hearing a woman describe the shootings that cost her an arm and killed a family friend, jurors were expected Tuesday to hear from a former New Orleans police lieutenant who pleaded guilty to helping cover up the deadly shootings of unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.
Michael Lohman, a veteran of 21 years with the New Orleans Police Department, has pleaded guilty to participating in an alleged cover up of the shootings that left two people dead and four wounded on Sept. 4, 2005.
Federal prosecutors wrapped up the first day of testimony Monday by putting Susan Bartholomew on the stand. In frequently tearful testimony, she told jurors she felt bullets piercing her body as she huddled with her husband and teenage daughter behind a concrete barrier. She recalled that her daughter, lying on the ground next to her, tried to shield her body from the hail of gunfire.
"I prayed. I just called to the Lord because I didn't know what else to do," Bartholomew said.
Bartholomew said it wasn't until after the shooting stopped that she realized police officers had shot her, leaving her right arm hanging by just a strip of skin. She said the officers approached them as they lay on the bridge, threatened to kill them and yelled at them to hold up their hands.
"Of course I couldn't because my arm was shot off," she said. "I raised the only hand I had."
Opening arguments started Monday with prosecutors painting a picture of out of control police opening fire on unarmed civilians without following proper procedure. Defense attorneys countered with a portrait of stressed, tired, overworked officers reacting to what they thought was an attack on fellow officers.
"They cut loose with assault rifles and shotguns and they did so without ever identifying themselves," Justice Department attorney Bobbi Bernstein said of the officers. "The mistake they made was thinking anyone walking on the Danziger Bridge that day was a criminal."
Police Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, former officer Robert Faulcon, Sgt. Robert Gisevius and Officer Anthony Villavaso are charged in the shootings that killed 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, who was severely mentally disabled. The men were indicted last year on federal civil rights charges. Retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman is charged in the alleged cover-up.
Police are accused of plotting to plant a gun, fabricate witnesses and falsify reports to make the shootings appear justified. Five other former officers already have pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up. They are cooperating with the government and are expected to testify during the trial, which could last up to eight weeks.
Defense attorneys said their clients had honored their oaths to protect and serve, quickly beginning rescue missions even though they too suffered from the hurricane's destruction. They saw death and suffering, worked in horrifying conditions and heard gunshots so frequently at night they had to stop rescue missions when the sun went down.
Holmes survived, but Brissette died on the east side of the bridge. On the west side, Faulcon allegedly shot Madison in the back with a shotgun as he and his brother, Lance Madison, were fleeing from the gunfire. Ronald Madison was lying on the ground when Bowen walked over and asked a fellow officer, "Is that one of them?" before he repeatedly stomped on the dying man, Bernstein said.
"This was a tragedy for everyone involved, police officers and victims," said attorney Lindsay Larson, who represents Faulcon. "It was a horrible, terrible mistake, but it was not a federal crime."
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