NEW ORLEANS (NNPA) - The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney's office in New Orleans has announced a federal probe into the fatal shootings which occurred on a city bridge just six days after Hurricane Katrina.
"In the best spirit of law enforcement coordination, and at the request of the victim's families, the New Orleans District Attorney has referred the matter to the United States Department of Justice for review," U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said in a statement early this month.
Letten said his office, the Justice Department and the FBI would take "as much time and resources as necessary to determine whether there are any prosecutable violations of federal criminal laws in this matter."
"In order to insure the integrity of the process, no additional comments regarding this matter will be made until the review is complete," he added.
The decision came on the heels of the dismissal of charges against seven New Orleans police officers accused of fatally shooting two Black men on an eastern New Orleans bridge just days after several levee breaks flooded 80 percent of the city.
While NOPD officials admit that the officers shot people from both sides of the bridge, they contend that the seven officers who were charged in the case were fired upon first.
Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius Jr., Officer Anthony Villavaso II and former Officer Robert Faulcon Jr. each faced first-degree murder and attempted murder charges in the case. Orleans Parish Criminal Court Judge Raymond Bigelow also threw out attempted first-degree murder charges against Officer Mike Hunter Jr. and Officer Robert Barrios and attempted second-degree murder charges against Officer Ignatius Hills.
Faulcon resigned from the police force; the other officers were assigned to desk duty after their indictment in December 2006.
When the "Danziger 7" turned themselves in to authorities, they were greeted by applause and cheers from a large crowd of supporters, some of whom carried signes that read "Heroes."
Those images did little to defuse a case that racially charged from the outset. It also didn't help matters that the presiding judge in the case, Raymond Bigelow, was also the judge who granted defense attorneys' request to move the trials of four white bouncers from Razzoo Bar & Patio accused of killing Black college student Levon Jones on Dec. 31, 2004 to venues outside of New Orleans.
"I am totally shocked," attorney Franz Zibilich, who represents Faulcon, told The Associated Press last week. "The state never had jurisdiction over civil rights violations. And it's been three years. You would think if the Feds were interested they would have investigated long before this."
In throwing out the murder and attempted murder charges on Sept. 13, State District Judge Raymond Bigelow agreed with defense arguments that prosecutors violated state law by divulging secret grand jury testimony to a police officer who was a witness in the case.
"The violation is clear," Bigelow said in making the ruling.
Survivors of the Danziger Bridge shootings told authorities that the officers fired at unarmed people crossing the Danziger Bridge to get food at a grocery store. Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, and James Brissette, 19, were shot and killed by police. Four other people were wounded. The officers acknowledged shooting at people on the bridge, but said they did so only after taking fire.
After Bigelow quashed the indictments, religious and civil rights groups in New Orleans called for the district attorney to refile charges against the officers.
The family of Ronald Madison asked the Justice Department to look into the incident after Bigelow's decision.
Interim Orleans Parish District Attorney Keva Landrum-Johnson wrote a letter to the U.S. Justice Department last August, requesting that the federal government take over the case.
Recogizing and acknowledging the district attorney's office poor handling of the case, Landrum-Johnson wrote: "More likely than not, the court will quash the indictments and the State will be left with no viable option other than to re-charge some or all of the defendants on lesser offenses."
"Admittedly, my office bears much of the responsibility for the position we are in now."
Danatus King, president of the New Orleans branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told The Louisiana Weekly that the criminal justice system should not allow mistakes made by the district attorney's office prevent justice from being carried out in the Danziger Bridge case. He, too, called on the Justice Department to take up the case.