Former Police Officer Pleads Guilty in Danziger Bridge Case
WASHINGTON – Michael Hunter, who until last week was an officer with the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and misprision of a felony, for failing to report a crime, in connection with the federal investigation of a police-involved shooting on the Danziger Bridge, the Justice Department today announced.
The incident on the Danziger Bridge, which occurred on Sept. 4, 2005, in the days after Hurricane Katrina, involved one shooting on the east side of the bridge that resulted in the death of one civilian and the wounding of four others, and a second shooting on the west side that resulted in the death of Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man who had severe disabilities. Ronald Madison’s brother, Lance, was arrested on eight counts of attempting to kill police officers, but he was later released without indictment. The police maintained that they fired at the civilians in self-defense, after the civilians fired at police. However, in the past months, a former Lieutenant and former Detective with NOPD have pleaded guilty to federal charges related to a cover up of the shooting incident. Today, Hunter admitted that he also knew of and participated in a conspiracy to obstruct justice in the investigation of the shooting, and that he knew and covered up that officers on the bridge had engaged in unjustified shootings. Hunter, 33, of Slidell, La., entered his plea in federal court in New Orleans today before U. S. District Court Judge Sarah Vance.
"In times of disaster, we look to our law enforcement officers to protect public safety and keep the peace. Today, this former NOPD Officer has admitted that amidst the devastation that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina he watched fellow officers shoot unarmed civilians. And, he admitted covering up about what they did," said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. "We will continue to aggressively investigate the incident that occurred on the Danziger Bridge and other post-Katrina incidents and we will continue to prosecute any officer who violates federal law."
"Today’s conviction and factual basis of supporting evidence reveal the ever-sharpening focus of our investigation, and a vastly-increasing picture of the conduct of certain officers which resulted in the deaths of two unarmed civilians, the serious injuries to four persons, and the unjust arrest of an innocent, unarmed man," said U.S. Attorney Jim Letten of the Eastern District of Louisiana. "We will forge ahead with our investigation and all necessary prosecutions until all who violated the law and the public trust are brought to justice. My special thanks go to New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro for his cooperation and forbearance in making this conviction possible."
Assistant Director Kevin L. Perkins, FBI Criminal Investigative Division stated, "The citizens of New Orleans have the right to expect their law enforcement officers to act legally and in accordance with the Constitution. Nothing justifies or excuses the defendant’s conduct in this case. The FBI is committed to ensuring that violations of any citizen’s civil rights in this matter will continue to be aggressively investigated."
According to admissions the defendant made in a factual basis filed in court today, Hunter drove to the bridge on Sept. 4, 2005, in a large Budget rental truck carrying officers in response to a radio call that said officers on the nearby I-10 high-rise bridge had come under fire. In his factual basis, Hunter acknowledges the details of the shootings on the east side of the bridge, which resulted in the death of one civilian and serious injury to others. According to Hunter, officers fired at civilians even though the civilians did not appear to have any weapons. According to Hunter, one officer (referred to only as Sergeant A) at one point leaned over a concrete barrier, held out an assault rifle, and, in a sweeping motion, fired repeatedly at the civilians, who were at that point lying wounded and apparently unarmed on the ground.
Hunter also admits in his factual basis that he fired his weapon repeatedly at civilians who were running away over the bridge. He further admits that he did not see any weapons on these civilians, and that the civilians did not appear to pose a threat to officers as they ran up the bridge.
According to the factual basis, which the defendant admitted was true, Hunter was also present on the west side of the bridge when an officer, identified only as Officer A, shot and killed Ronald Madison, who was running away from officers with his hands in view, and did not have a weapon or pose a threat. Without warning, an officer fired a shotgun at Madison’s back as Madison ran toward a motel at the bottom of the bridge. Hunter also describes having watched as the officer identified as Sergeant A physically abused Ronald Madison as Madison lay on the ground, injured but still alive.
Hunter admitted in court today that, in the wake of the shootings on the bridge, he participated in a conspiracy to cover up the truth about what had happened on the bridge. Specifically, he admitted, among other things, that he and other officers provided false statements about what happened on the bridge; that before giving formal statements on tape, he and other officers met in a gutted-out police station and discussed their false stories; and that he lied to a state grand jury about what happened on the Danziger Bridge.
The two-count bill of information to which Hunter pleaded guilty charged him with conspiracy to obstruct justice and misprision of a felony. The defendant faces a possible maximum sentence of eight years in prison and a fine of $500,000.
This case, which is ongoing, is being investigated by the New Orleans Field Office of the FBI, and is being prosecuted by Deputy Chief Bobbi Bernstein and Trial Attorney Forrest Christian of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Julia K. Evans of the Eastern District of Louisiana.