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Police officers plead not guilty in Katrina shootings

Three New Orleans police officers have pleaded not guilty to charges in connection with the deaths of two unarmed men on a bridge after Hurricane Katrina.

Three New Orleans police officers have pleaded not guilty to charges in connection with the shooting deaths of two unarmed men on a bridge after Hurricane Katrina, in a case that highlights the debate over their department's actions during that troubled period. Sgts Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen and Officer Anthony Villavaso entered their pleas during initial court appearances in New Orleans yesterday. A fourth defendant, former officer Robert Faulcon, was arrested in Texas on Tuesday and has not entered a plea. Two former homicide detectives, Archie Kaufman and Gerard Dugue, have been charged with helping a subsequent coverup of the incident.

The Danziger Bridge shootings have become the focus of attention among many in the city angry at the way in which police handled civil order after the flooding. It is one of eight incidents being investigated as part of a comprehensive review by the US Justice Department. Critics of the New Orleans police said yesterday that they welcome the indictments as a sign that the Justice Department probe is making progress. Five other former officers have pleaded guilty to helping cover up the bridge shootings.

Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Louisiana, said she is satisfied a thorough investigation is now taking place. "What we've always said is that we simply wanted an adequate investigation," she said. "Having had that, we are happy that individuals will now be dealt with by the criminal justice system. "It is because of the federal probe that we've had any indictments at all."

But lawyers for the six men say the indictment is riddled with errors. They also criticise the federal government for bringing charges five years after the shootings occurred. "The indictment itself is full of things that are simply incorrect," said Frank DeSalvo, the attorney representing Sgt Bowen. "We know what happened on that day. We feel fairly confident we will be able to show the government the error of its ways."

Claude Kelly, Mr Dugue's attorney, said yesterday his client was "100 per cent innocent" of the charges against him. "The indictment is a tragedy for him, his family and everything he's worked his whole career for," Mr Kelly said. "He has a 33-year unblemished record with the New Orleans Police Department." Sgts Gisevius and Bowen, Officer Villavaso and Mr Faulcon were charged with federal civil rights violations in the killing of James Brissette, a 17-year-old who prosecutors say had been walking across the bridge to buy supplies. Mr Brissette was crossing with five members of the Bartholomew family, four of whom were also shot.

Mr Faulcon was also charged in connection with the shooting death of Ronald Madison. Madison, 40, who had severe mental disabilities, was shot in the back as he attempted to flee from the bridge. The three current officers have been suspended without pay. The US Attorney's Office in New Orleans has said it has not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty against the four defendants. A previous case brought by Orleans Parish district attorney against the four men indicted on Tuesday, along with three other officers, collapsed in 2008. A judge dismissed the case, saying the prosecutor violated grand jury secrecy.

Rafael Goyeneche, a former prosecutor in New Orleans and now the president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a non-profit organisation tackling corruption in Louisiana, said he believed the arrests this week were a sign that the Justice Department's independent probe was proving fruitful. "The indictments signal a new phase of the federal civil rights investigations," he said. "It is an indication that the federal government is now using the information they have acquired and consolidated it with the information with cooperating officers."

At a news conference on Tuesday the U. Attorney General, Eric Holder, suggested the charges were far from the end of the federal probe. "It will take more than this investigation to renew the New Orleans Police Department and to allow it to thrive," Mr Holder told reporters. Both the city's new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, and its newly appointed police chief, Ronal Serpas, have promised to reform the police department.

The indictment reveals details of the incident on the Danziger Bridge on September 4, 2005. Brissette was shot seven times. Susan Bartholomew, who was walking with Mr Brissette, was shot in the arm while her husband, Leonard, was shot in the head. On the west side of the bridge, the indictment states, Sgt Gisevius then shot at Ronald Madison and his brother, Lance, who were on their way to check on the office of their brother, Romell. It alleges that Sgt Bowen stomped and kicked Mr Madison while he lay dying.

The Madison family said in a statement: "Our family has waited a long time for justice in this cas. We are grateful that the Department of Justice has taken this case seriously and has conducted a thorough investigation, resulting in these indictments." The indictment also states that a detailed coverup took place involving the six charged officers, including the arrest of Lance Madison on eight counts of attempting to kill police officers. Mr Madison was eventually released after three weeks.

Mr Kaufman is also accused of planting a gun at the scene and of making up witness statements. He and Mr Dugue are accused of holding a secret meeting in which the officers involved in the shootings were told to ensure their accounts were consistent. Mr Kaufman could face a 120-year prison sentence, while Mr Dugue faces a maximum sentence of 70 years. * Agencies