More than eight years after a series of high-profile NOPD fatal shootings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, members of families impacted by the murders are still seeking justice for their murdered or injured loved ones.
The latest blow to efforts to hold members of the NOPD accountable for several high-profile, post-Katrina murders came last month when a federal judge overturned the convictions of five former NOPD officers convicted in the murder of two unarmed civilians and the wounding of four other unarmed civilians just days after Hurricane Katrina.
In a scathing, 129-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Kurt Englehardt last month granted five former NOPD officers' request for a new trial in the Danziger Bridge case, an incident that ended with two civilians being gunned down by NOPD officers and four other civilians being wounded by police.
The incident took place on September 4, 2005, less than a week after Hurricane Katerina.
After initially being indicted by then-Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan and having those charges thrown out by Orleans Parish Judge Raymond Bigelow, the officers were re-indicted by then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. History repeated itself last month when Judge Englehardt ordered a new trial for the five Danziger defendants because of prosecutorial misconduct.
"Re-trying this case is a very small price to pay in order in order to protect the validity of the verdict in this case, the institutional integrity of the Court, and the criminal justice system as a whole," Judge Englehardt wrote.
After learning of Judge Englehardt's decision to grant the Danziger officers a new trial, Sherrell Johnson, the mother of 17-year-old James Brissette, told The Associated Press in a recent telephone interview,"Is my son going to get a new lease on life? Is he coming back? What about the mental anguish that these people put us through? It is not fair to make us sit through that again."
"We are extremely disappointed in Judge Englehardt's decision granting a new trial in the Danziger Criminal Civil Rights case," Dr. Romell Madison, the brother of the 40-year-old, mentally disabled murder victim, said. "It has been over eight years since our brother Ronald was shot and killed on the Danziger Bridge and our brother Lance was falsely arrested and framed on eight counts of murder. This decision reopens this terrible wound not only for our family, but our entire community. From the beginning of this ordeal our family has sought justice, not just for ourselves but for all the victims and families. We urge the Department of Justice to appeal Judge Engelhardt's decision. Our fight for justice continues."
Sherrell Johnson recently shared what the ordeal of the 2011 trial was like for her. "I sat with invisible handcuffs on my wrists and invisible shackles on my feet," Johnson told nola.com. "I couldn't leave. I listened to every word."
Johnson, whose son-in-law, a policeman, was also murdered in the harrowing days after Hurricane Katrina, told nola.com that her instincts told her that even though the cops responsible for the horrific crimes committed on the Danziger Bridge had been convicted, the struggle for justice was far from over.
"There are always loopholes in the system," Johnson said. "I knew we could always just slip through the cracks. And that's exactly what happened."
Judge Englehardt's Sept. 17 ruling means that former NOPD officers Robert Faulcon, Kenneth Bowen Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavaso and Arthur Kaufman will get a new trial. Also getting a new trail will be three cops convicted in the murder of Henry Glover — David Warren, Travis McCabe and Greg McRae — and the burning of his remains in a car on a Mississippi River levee. After he was murdered and his remains were burned, someone removed Henry Glover's skull from the burned vehicle. The skull has never been returned. Two officers involved in the murder of Danny Brumfield — Ronald Mitchell and Ray Jones — were never charged in his death. Instead, they faced charges of lying during a civil proceeding — one was acquitted and the other was scheduled to be freed before the end of October.
While the DOJ met with residents for two years at a series of community forums organized by Community United for Change and heard many stories about the unjustified use of deadly force by cops, it only chose to pursue charges in a handful of those cases involving about 20 current or former NOPD officers. Witnessing the unraveling of those cases has been painful and frustrating for the families of NOPD murder victims and residents in general.
We thought we got a little justice — so much came out in the trial about what happened," Rebecca Glover told nola.com in a recent interview about the granting of new trials for the officers involved in her nephew's murder. "We have to relive this all over again. We thought we could pick up the piece and go on. They say justice has been served? Justice has not been served."
"We're again scratching the scab of Katrina. Just when we think these cases are over, we have to really, really go back to square one," Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University law professor, told nola.com. "Brand new trials, re-living through the testimony argument, the haze and confusion that followed Katrina – that haze and confusion was one of the primary defense themes in both of those trials."
"I think people are disgusted," Ted Quant, director of Loyola University's Twomey Center for Peace through Social Justice, told nola.com. "I think people are angry. I think people are sad. Once again, it's a blow to this community, a blow to people who want to see justice in the face of injustice."
"What has transpired in the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans, to my knowledge, is unprecedented," Shaun Clarke, a former federal prosecutor, told nola.com. "Clearly, it has set back the cause of justice in federal court in New Orleans."
Rebecca Glover, Henry Glover's aunt who sat in court every day during the harrowing trial of the officers charged in that grisly murder, told nola.com that the fight for justice rages on for the families of those killed in the Glover, Danziger and Brumfield cases as well as the community as a whole.
"The rug has been pulled out from all of us — I'm talking about the Glover case, the Danziger case, and all these other families that the police officers have killed," Glover said. "You think we got justice? We don't have justice.
"We're trying to pick up the little pieces and move on," Glover continued. "You think something will be done, you trust the system, and the system failed us."
Making matters worse has been the City of New Orleans' handling of efforts to implement the federally mandated NOPD consent decree, which resulted from the high-profile NOPD murder cases and a scathing DOJ report that found the city's police department to be corrupt, abusive and routinely engaged in unconstitutional policing. Although the mayor signed the consent decree in 2012, he has since changed his stance and tried repeatedly to have it tossed out, arguing that the city can't afford to pay for an NOPD and Orleans Parish Prison consent decree, that the NOPD consent decree was tainted by the involvement of former federal prosecutors Sal Perricone and Jan Mann, who resigned amid an online posting scandal, and that the NOPD no longer needs a consent decree because it has already begun to reform itself. The Landrieu administration has also been sharply criticized for seeking to throw its support behind a candidate for federal monitor of the NOPD consent decree with local partners with ties to the mayor.
That firm, Chicago-based Hilliard Heintze, was ultimately beaten out for the job of federal monitor by Washington, DC-based Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton.
On Thursday, federal prosecutors asked Judge Englehardt for a nine-day extension that would give the U.S. Attorney's Office until the weekend of Oct. 26 to file an appeal of the judge's decision to grant the five former cops convicted in the Danziger Bridge case a new trial.
Prosecutors argue that although Judge Englehardt handed down his decision on Sept. 17, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had several appeals pending at the time and that it wasn't until Sept. 26 that the Fifth Circuit technically remanded the matter, granting Englehardt jurisdiction in the case.
"Given the seriousness of this matter," Bobbi Bernstein, deputy chief of the DOD's civil rights division, wrote in Thursday's court filing, "The United States intends to act expeditiously."
"The Black community is essentially getting it from all sides," Ramessu Merriamen Aha, a New Orleans businessman and former congressional candidate, told The Louisiana Weekly Friday. "We're catching hell from trigger-happy, nightstick-swinging cops, incompetent prosecutors who have demonstrated in local and federal courts that they cannot be trusted or relied upon to do their jobs and a mayor who is trying to do everything in his power to block a major overhaul of the city's police department. All of that sounds an awful lot like genocide and domestic terrorism.
"Black people who see and understand what is going on need to get up and challenge this corrupt system or suffer the consequences that come with doing and saying nothing until it is too late," he added.
For prosecutorial misconduct to potentially allow these cops to get away with murder twice is unconscionable," the Rev. Raymond Brown, a community activist and president of National Actin Now, told The Louisiana Weekly Thursday. "It will ultimately be up to the people of New Orleans to demand justice for the families of Ronald Madison, James Brissette, Henry Glover, Adolph Grimes III, Justin Sipp, Wendell Allen and all of the people who have been victimized by this city's corrupt and abusive police force."
Since those post-Katrina shootings, there have been several fatal NOPD shootings that underscore the need for a major overhaul of the NOPD. One involved the killing of Justin Sipp in March of 2012. Sipp, 20, was killed and his brother Earl, 23, was injured during an exchange with police near City Park as Justin Sipp headed to work at a fast-food restaurant just before dawn. Mayor Mitch Landrieu raised the ire of many residents when he called several officers injured in the incident "heroes," which brought to mind the defiant support the so-called "Danziger 7" defendants received when they turned themselves in after they are indicted by then-Orleans Parish D.A. Eddie Jordan. The second incident involves Wendell Allen, who was gunned down while standing on the staircase of his Gentilly home shirtless and unarmed.
Video footage from the Wendell Allen shooting shows that there clearly was no need to shoot the unarmed 20-year-old. He was killed with a single bullet to the chest fired by former NOPD Officer Joshua Colclough.
Colclough apologized to the Allen family in August and entered a guilty plea that means he will spend four years behind bars.
"While he apologized to Wendell Allen's family, how sincere was an apology made just before he went to court and entered a guilty plea?" the Rev. Raymond Brown told The Louisiana Weekly. "Since he only got four years for an unjustified murder of a young man with a promising future, I'd say he got off easy and that he got away with murder."
In addition to the post-Katrina cases that have led to a federally mandated NOPD consent decree, the City of New Orleans and its police department must still face the legal and financial fallout from the Sipp and Allen shootings.
The families of Justin Sipp and Wendell Allen have both filed federal civil rights lawsuits against the City of New Orleans and the NOPD this past spring.
*Additional reporting by Louisiana Weekly editor Edmund W. Lewis.