Third New Orleans police officer expected to plead guilty in Danziger Bridge shooting cover-up

(NOLA.COM)   Laura Maggi and Brendan McCarthy wrote this report.

A third New Orleans police officer is expected to plead guilty to participating in a cover-up of the shooting of six civilians on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina, following the filing of charges Tuesday against the officer.

Michael Hunter, 33, was charged by federal prosecutors in a bill of information accusing him of conspiring to obstruct justice and misprision of a felony, or failing to report a crime.

The bill specifically alleges that Hunter participated in a conspiracy to craft false and misleading statements about the police shooting. It also alleges that he lied in October 2006 to a state grand jury examining the shooting.

An indictment by a grand jury is required in a felony case, unless waived by a defendant. Therefore, a bill of information typically signals that the defendant is cooperating with the federal government and will plead guilty.

Hunter’s attorney, Townsend Myers, declined to comment on how his client will plead.

NOPD spokesman Bob Young said Hunter, who joined the New Orleans Police Department in 1998, is still working on desk duty in the criminal intelligence bureau.

“We have heard he plans on retiring from the department prior to his plea,” Young said.

While there have been two previous guilty pleas in what prosecutors have cast as a widespread cover-up of a “bad shoot,” Hunter is the first officer who was actually involved in the shooting to be charged.

The other two officers who pleaded guilty in the past month — Lt. Michael Lohman and Detective Jeffrey Lehrmann — arrived at the scene after the seven officers involved in the incident, which ended with four civilians injured and two dead. Lohman and Lehrmann are no longer on the force.

budget_rental_truck_danziger_bridge.JPGCourtesy WDSU-TVImage from video of Budget rental truck on Danziger Bridge.

Hunter drove a large Budget rental truck from the make-shift police headquarters at Crystal Palace banquet hall in eastern New Orleans to the Danziger Bridge on Sept. 4, 2005, responding to a radio transmission from officers on the nearby I-10 high rise that they had been shot at. In the NOPD investigative report, he acknowledges firing three shots with his Glock handgun at two men, but says he missed them.

In a previous state court prosecution of the shooting — ended by a state judge because of prosecutorial missteps — Hunter was indicted on two counts of attempted murder. The FBI and federal prosecutors took up the bridge investigation after the state case tanked in the summer of 2008.

Legal experts said Hunter’s expected cooperation with federal investigators could be significant, as he would have more direct knowledge of what actually happened on the bridge than Lehrmann and Lohman, who each arrived later.

Frank DeSalvo, an attorney representing another officer, countered that Hunter’s anticipated guilty plea doesn’t change the defense strategy for the other officers.

“It changes the dynamic some, but it doesn’t change the defense,” DeSalvo said. “We know what happened, how it happened. If somebody got intimidated into saying what isn’t true, well they have to live with it. And that’s what happened here.”

Charges center on cover-up

The charges filed Tuesday don’t deal with Hunter’s actions during the shooting, but center on his alleged participation in the cover-up that prosecutors say began after the shooting ended. Hunter is accused of participating in a conspiracy to tell false stories about the incident to create legal justification for the shooting.

Lohman and Lehrmann have already admitted to participating in a cover-up, which they said included the use of a drop gun that police claimed was recovered from the scene, but actually belonged to lead investigator, Sgt. Arthur Kaufman. Lehrmann admitted he knew Kaufman created fabricated civilian witnesses while writing the investigative report.

Both former officers have said when they arrived at the scene shortly after the shooting, they could see no guns near the injured or deceased civilians.

Kaufman’s attorney has denied his client did anything wrong.

There aren’t many new details about the alleged cover-up in the Hunter’s charging document. Prosecutors accuse him of participating in a January 2006 meeting at the gutted-out 7th District station, which they believe was held so that officers and NOPD investigators could coordinate their stories about the shooting.

The bill of information states that “Sergeant A took the lead in explaining the false story he would tell to justify the shooting,” while other officers fit their statements into that narrative. Descriptions attributed to Sergeant A in previous court documents, clearly match actions and statements in police documents of Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, who was the head of the 7th District task force Hunter served on and was involved in the shootings.

After the meeting, Hunter met with homicide detectives and provided a “false account of the shootings” that was consistent with the fabricated stories the officers had just discussed in the meeting, according to the charging document.

Hunter is also accused of providing a false account in October 2006 to the state grand jury examining the shooting.

Civil rights issues arise

While the federal charges so far have focused on the cover-up of the incident, Hunter is a witness who could help them if they want to seek indictments for the actual shootings, legal experts said.

“They have their first cooperating witness who can give them evidence about why they shot and what the circumstances were,” said Dane Ciolino, a Loyola Law professor. “This could be the basis of a civil rights violation on the underlying shooting.”

Former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg agreed that could be prosecutors’ strategy. Civil rights charges based on officers shooting people without legal justification could carry more significant prison sentences, if officers are convicted, he said.

But Ciolino cautioned that civil rights charges about the actual shootings, which ended with the death of two men, could be difficult. Prosecutors would need to prove officers weren’t “merely negligent” in shooting civilians who all asserted they were unarmed, he said.

Civilians reportedly fired guns too

For their part, defense attorneys for the officers have maintained that their officers had grounds for believing that civilians were shooting on the Danziger Bridge.

They point in particular to a court statement made by Lance Madison, a civilian who police arrested that day, accusing him of shooting at officers. His brother, 40-year-old Ronald Madison, who was severely mentally disabled, was fatally shot on the Gentilly side of the bridge.

Federal prosecutors have asserted Madison was wrongly arrested, essentially framed by police.

But in a court statement he made about a month after his arrest, Madison said that before the police arrived on the scene a group of teenagers he described as “little boys” had shot at him and his brother. That statement, police attorneys have said, bolsters their contention that somebody besides New Orleans officers fired guns.

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