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Ten years after Katrina, officers to plead guilty to Danziger Bridge shooting

Five former New Orleans police officers agreed to plea deals relating to the fatal shooting of two unarmed civilians fleeing the city after hurricane Katrina.

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Former New Orleans police sergeant Arthur Kaufman (c.) arrives at Federal Court in New Orleans on Wednesday.

Gerald Herbert/AP

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Five former New Orleans police officers charged in connection to the deadly Danziger Bridge shooting in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina on Wednesday pleaded guilty in federal court in exchange for reduced sentences.

The ex-officers had initially been convicted of the 2005 shootings in 2011, a decision that was revoked in 2013 by US District Judge Kurt Engelhardt due to prosecutor misconduct. Four of the five officers have been incarcerated for around six years due to their direct involvement in the shooting, while the fifth is out on bond. The agreement, announced Wednesday, will credit the officers for time served in their final sentences, which are expected to be drastically reduced as part of the plea deals.

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The Times-Picayune reported that the four officers originally facing the most prison time, ranging from 38 to 65 years, will now each be sentenced to no more than 12 years. The former officer out on bond is expected to see his sentence reduced from six years to three.

The incident in question occurred in September 2005, six days after Katrina hit New Orleans, amid devastating flooding that trapped hundreds if not thousands of residents in the city with no access to food or shelter. Frustrated by overflowing emergency shelters, some residents attempted to flee the city across the Danziger Bridge.

After responding to an unconfirmed report of someone firing on an officer, former officers Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso, along with ex-sergeants Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius, gunned down James Brissette, then 17 years old, and Ronald Madison, who was mentally disabled, as they attempted to cross the bridge. Officer Faulcon shot Mr. Madison was shot in the back.

The officers also wounded four members of the family of Leonard Bartholomew IV. James was friends with Mr. Bartholomew's nephew, Jose Holmes, who was shot several times. Madison's brother Lance and Bartholomew's 14-year-old son Leonard, also at the scene, were unharmed.

The officers proceeded to cover up the shooting by planting a gun, falsifying reports, and inventing witnesses, according to prosecutors. Lance Madison was also arrested and charged with the attempted murder of police officers, but was later cleared.

Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, out on bail, was accused of planning the cover-up. Officer Gerard Dugue, also accused of participating in the cover-up, was tried separately from the five involved in Wednesday's plea deal; his 2012 trial ended in a mistrial and further proceedings have yet to be scheduled.

The shooting, and other controversies surrounding the New Orleans Police Department, spurred a Department of Justice investigation initiated by newly-elected Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2010, which resulted in strict reforms within the department.

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The officers' original sentencing came apart after a scandal involving the US Attorney's Office led Judge Engelhardt to throw out the original verdict following a Justice Department investigation. Some attorneys involved in the Danziger case were found to have posted anonymous comments on the Internet regarding the legal proceedings, a revelation which Engelhardt declared to be "grotesque prosecutorial misconduct."

Despite that decision, prosecutors at the time said that the misconduct was unproven to have affected the initial verdict.

The plea agreement will likely put an end to the Danziger Bridge saga after more than a decade, finally leaving the families of those affected with some closure – although the punishments set for Faulcon, Villavaso, Bowen, Gisevius, and Kaufman will be far less than those the convicted ex-cops originally faced.

Although Lance Madison said justice was served in the case, he also said in a statement that the prison time the officers will serve "will never be enough to make up for what they did."

This report includes material from The Associated Press.