- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 3, 2011

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Jurors on Wednesday began deciding the fate of five current or former police officers charged in deadly shootings on a New Orleans bridge in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt read instructions before the jury began its deliberations after weeks of testimony and several hours of closing arguments.

Federal prosecutors contend the officers shot unarmed people without justification and without warning, killing two and wounding four on Sept. 5, 2005, then embarked on a cover-up involving made-up witnesses, falsified reports and a planted gun.

Defense attorneys countered that the officers were returning fire on the city’s Danziger Bridge and reasonably believed their lives were in danger as they rushed to respond to another officer’s distress call less than a week after Katrina.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Theodore Carter said in closing arguments that police had no justification for shooting unarmed, defenseless people.

“It was unreasonable for these officers to fire even one shot, let alone dozens,” he told jurors.

All told, jurors heard five weeks of testimony by roughly 60 witnesses in the Justice Department’s case against former officer Robert Faulcon, Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, Officer Anthony Villavaso and retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman.

Sgt. Kaufman, who investigated the shootings, is charged only with covering them up. The other four men are charged both in the shootings and with taking part in the purported cover-up.

Defense attorneys say police were shot at on the bridge before they returned fire.

“None of these people intentionally decided to go out there and cause people harm,” said Timothy Meche, Office Villavaso’s lawyer. He said they did their best, operating under “terrible, horrible circumstances.”

Eric Hessler, Sgt. Gisevius’ attorney, accused the government of ignoring evidence that somebody shot at the bridge from a grassy area nearby.

Mr. Carter, however, said the claim that police encountered armed residents is discredited by the officers’ failure to recover any weapons.

“This wasn’t a gunfight. This was carnage,” the prosecutor said.

On the morning of the shootings, a group of officers piled into a rental truck and drove to the bridge in response to another officer’s distress call. On the east side, officers allegedly opened fire on a group of people without issuing warnings or identifying themselves, according to prosecutors.

Mr. Faulcon, the only defendant to testify, said he was “paralyzed with fear” when he shot and killed 40-year-old Ronald Madison as he chased him and his brother, Lance Madison. Mr. Faulcon didn’t dispute that he shot an unarmed man in the back, but said he had thought Ronald Madison was armed.

Prosecutors contend Sgt. Kaufman retrieved a gun from his home weeks after the shootings and turned it in as evidence, trying to pass it off as a gun belonging to Lance Madison. He also is accused of fabricating two nonexistent witnesses to the shootings.

In 2006, seven officers were indicted in state court on murder or attempted murder charges. After a state judge dismissed those charges in 2008, the Justice Department’s civil rights division opened an investigation.