A Nurse with a Gun

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Danziger Bridge Massacre Testimony Released

Defense attorneys for seven New Orleans police officers accused of shooting a group of people after Hurricane Katrina will be given the complete testimony of two witnesses to the state grand jury that indicted the officers on charges of murder and attempted murder, a Criminal District Court judge ruled Thursday. Chief Judge Raymond Bigelow said in his ruling that federal law requires some of the information in the transcripts be made available to the defense. The Danziger BridgeDistrict Attorney Eddie Jordan's office already provided the defense with redacted copies of the testimony, which blacked out information the office believed the law did not compel it to disclose.

But Bigelow ruled that made the transcripts essentially unreadable. "To cut and paste would dilute the ability of the reader to understand the testimony in this very complex case," he wrote. While grand jury testimony is typically secret, Bigelow noted in his ruling that the trial court judge is given the discretion to determine whether the material should be disclosed. In every criminal case, prosecutors are required to turn over evidence to defense attorneys that is favorable to the defendant, as well as evidence that can be used to discredit a prosecution witness.

Bigelow gave Jordan's office until Thursday to turn over the copies to the defense team or decide to ask the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal to review his decision. Prosecutors at the hearing declined to respond to the ruling, and an office spokesman did not return a phone call.

The shootings on and near the Danziger Bridge on Sept. 4, 2005, left two men dead: Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man with the mental capacity of a child, and 19-year-old James Brissette. Four people were also severely wounded in an onslaught that the survivors have described as an unprovoked hail of bullets from police officers who did not identify themselves. The police have maintained that they shot at the people on Danziger Bridge only after rushing to the bridge after hearing a radio call about officers in jeopardy and then being fired at. Two of Madison's siblings attended Thursday's hearing and expressed dismay that the grand jury testimony would be made available. "Little by little, this is really violating the justice system," said Romell Madison.

Townsend Myers, the attorney for officer Michael Hunter, said he believes the decision will help the defense. "This gives us the opportunity to use the testimony at trial," he said. In a reflection of the complex nature of the case against the seven New Orleans Police Department officers, Myers and two other defense attorneys have already reviewed all of the transcripts of every witness before the grand jury, but they weren't given copies to prepare for trial or to use as evidence. The unusual arrangement was agreed to by Jordan's office in April.

Attorneys for Hunter, Sgt. Kenneth Bowen and officer Ignatius Hills looked at the transcripts in Bigelow's chambers. The attorneys were looking for evidence to support their contention that the three officers should not have been indicted because Jordan compelled their testimony before the grand jury in exchange for immunity. Bigelow has yet to rule on a motion to dismiss the charges against the three officers because of the immunity. After looking at the testimony, the defense lawyers thought the statements of Tony Humfleet and Lance Madison contained information that all the lawyers should see because the two civilian witnesses to the shootings contradicted each other, according to Bigelow's ruling.

Defense attorneys have also said Lance Madison, whose brother was fatally shot by an officer in front of a motel at the foot of the Danziger Bridge on Chef Menteur Highway, made statements to the grand jury that contradict ones he made before a judge less than a month after the shootings. Lance MadisonLance Madison was arrested after the shootings and booked with firing at the police, although the state grand jury later cleared him of any wrongdoing. At a bond hearing in late September 2005, Madison testified about his experiences on the bridge.

At least one defense attorney has pointed out that Lance Madison, in that hearing, described walking over the bridge with his brother and initially being shot at by six teenagers before the police arrived on the scene and also began shooting. The Madisons had been walking over the Danziger Bridge after a failed attempt to reach their mother's house in flooded eastern New Orleans. They had been staying at Romell Madison's dental office on the Gentilly side of the bridge.

Former officer Robert Faulcon faces a first-degree murder charge for the shooting of Ronald Madison, as well as another count for the shooting of Brissette. Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius, and officer Anthony Villavaso also face first-degree murder charges for shooting Brissette.

The four officers also face a number of attempted-murder charges, along with Hunter, Hills and officer Robert Barrios, for shooting at people who were either wounded or not hit.

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