NEW ORLEANS – A former New Orleans police officer told federal authorities he saw a fellow officer shoot and kick unarmed, wounded civilians in a deadly incident on a bridge in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, marking the first time an officer has provided federal authorities with an eyewitness account of the events.
The former officer, Michael Hunter, pleaded guilty Wednesday to helping cover up the shootings on the Danziger Bridge less than a week after the August 2005 storm.
A court filing Wednesday that describes Hunter's account of the shootings contradicts a police report that said civilians shot at officers before the police opened fire, killing two people and wounding four others.
Seeing no danger to officers, Hunter says he shouted "Cease fire!" after an unidentified sergeant with an assault rifle and other officers opened fire on a group of unarmed civilians who took cover behind a concrete barrier on the bridge.
After they stopped firing, Hunter says he saw several civilians who appeared to be unarmed, injured and subdued.
"(The sergeant) suddenly leaned over the concrete barrier, held out his assault rifle, and, in a sweeping motion, fired repeatedly at the civilians lying wounded on the ground," the filing says. "The civilians were not trying to escape and were not doing anything that could be perceived as a threat."
Moments later, Hunter saw two men later identified as Lance Madison and his 40-year-old mentally disabled brother, Ronald, running away near the bottom of the bridge.
Hunter's statement said an unidentified officer shot Ronald Madison in the back with a shotgun.
"As Ronald Madison lay dying on the pavement, (the sergeant) ran down the bridge toward Ronald and asked an officer if Ronald was 'one of them.' When the officer replied in the affirmative, (the sergeant) began kicking or stomping Ronald Madison repeatedly with his foot," the filing states.
Madison and James Brissette, 19, were killed by police.
U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance said Hunter participated in a "blatant and systematic perversion of justice" and shouldn't be seen as a "hero" for taking responsibility.
"I don't think you can listen to this account without being sickened by the raw brutality of the shootings and the craven lawlessness of the cover-up," she said.
Hunter, 33, of Slidell, faces a maximum sentence of eight years in prison following his guilty plea to one count of conspiring to obstruct justice and one count of misprision of a felony. His sentencing is scheduled for June 30.
Dr. Romell Madison, one of Ronald's brothers, said he didn't know that police kicked his dying brother until he heard a prosecutor read the filing aloud in court.
"The cruelty that my brothers had to endure and the other victims had to endure was heartbreaking," he said.
Hunter's attorney, Townsend M. Myers, said in an emailed statement that his client made "a series of very bad decisions related to what happened on the Danziger Bridge, and what he did in the aftermath of those events. He accepts full responsibility for his bad decisions, and for their consequences."
Two other former officers have pleaded guilty to helping cover up the fact that police shot unarmed people.
Less than a week after the Aug. 29, 2005 hurricane, Hunter drove several officers in a rental truck to the Danziger Bridge, where police shot and killed two people and wounded four others. Hunter allegedly provided a false account of the shootings when he testified before a state grand jury in 2006.
Former Lt. Michael Lohmann and Jeffrey Lehrmann, a former detective, have pleaded guilty to participating in the cover-up, which included a planted gun, phony witnesses and falsified reports.