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Long Prison Terms For Former Police Officers In Katrina-Related Shootings

A federal judge has handed down lengthy sentences for several former New Orleans police officers for their roles in the shooting deaths of two people and the wounding of four others in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in September, 2005.

Four of the men will serve more than 30 years in prison; a fifth got six years behind bars for covering up knowledge of the shootings. After Katrina passed through the city, unarmed civilians were crossing the Danziger Bridge when New Orleans police officers responded to a call of shots fired at an officer. The officers opened fire, killing a mentally ill man and a teenaged boy.

As AP reports, "to make the shootings appear justified, officers conspired to plant a gun, fabricate witnesses and falsify reports. The case became the centerpiece of the Justice Department's push to clean up the troubled New Orleans Police Department."

NPR's John Burnett tells NPR Newscasts that during the defendants' trial last year, the men argued that New Orleans was in chaos after Katrina rumbled through and civil order broke down; but a jury decided that even if the ordered world has collapsed, police officers must obey their code of conduct.

Former officer Robert Faulcon Jr. received the longest prison sentence: 65 years for killing the mentally ill man with a shotgun blast to the back on Danziger Bridge. Two other defendants received terms of 40 years in prison, while the fifth man got a 38 year sentence.

But John also notes that five other former New Orleans police officers reached plea bargains with prosecutors and in exchange got very reduced sentences. This angered U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt.

He spoke for nearly two hours today, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, finding fault with several parts of the government's case. He called it "a sad day for New Orleans" and said he was "astonished and deeply troubled" by the plea bargains.

Judge Engelhardt compared one defendant who struck a plea bargain and got a five year term with his former partner, who got a 38 year sentence. The judge referred to him as the "biggest winner in the plea-bargain sweepstakes".

He was also annoyed that the government offered a plea bargain with a four year prison term to another defendant, whom the judge saw as one of the leaders of the coverup.

Pro-Publica, which has been investigating alleged police misconduct in New Orleans following Katrina, notes, "The sentencing marks the latest chapter in a long-running legal drama that has so far seen federal prosecutors secure convictions against 15 ex-officers for crimes committed shortly before and after the hurricane."

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