NEW ORLEANS – A New Orleans police officer randomly sprayed gunfire at wounded, unarmed people and repeatedly stomped on a dying man who had already been shot while running from police on a bridge after Hurricane Katrina, a former officer who also opened fire during the deadly encounter testified Wednesday.
Michael Hunter, a government witness in a federal trial of five current or former officers, said he was shocked when Sgt. Kenneth Bowen leaned over a concrete barrier and fired an assault rifle at several people who had been shot by police on the Danziger Bridge less than a week after the 2005 hurricane struck.
Hunter, who has pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up to make the shootings appear justified, is a key government witness in a case that has stunned a city with a history of police corruption. His testimony was the most detailed eyewitness account of the shootings in the trial so far. It also may help explain why police allegedly fired on unarmed residents when they responded to a distress call that other officers were under fire.
Hunter said Bowen, one of the officers on trial, was armed with an assault rifle when he fired "indiscriminately" at several people lying wounded on the east side of the bridge, where 17-year-old James Brissette died. Hunter, who said he didn't perceive any threat from them, testified that he peered over the barrier and saw two wounded females on the ground, embracing each other and crying.
"I thought it was kind of messed up that the females got shot," he said.
Hunter said Bowen later stomped on the back of 40-year-old Ronald Madison, a mentally disabled man, after another officer shot Madison in the back on the west side of the bridge. Hunter said Bowen apologized after he angrily confronted him for stomping on Madison.
"I was out of line," Bowen said, according to Hunter.
"We're not animals like them. We don't do that," Hunter recalled how he responded.
Hunter, who already has been sentenced to eight years in prison, is one of five former officers who pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up.
Hunter said he didn't feel threatened when he shot at people fleeing on the bridge, but fired at them anyway without warning because he was angry and "wanted to send a message."
"What was it?" a federal prosecutor asked Hunter.
"Don't mess with us," Hunter said.
Bowen's attorney, Frank DeSalvo, suggested during cross-examination that Hunter tailored his story to please prosecutors offering him a deal.
"The only thing I agreed to do was tell the truth," Hunter said during the exchange.
Bowen and three others were indicted last year on charges stemming from the shootings. Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shootings, is charged in the alleged cover-up.
On Sept. 4, 2005, less than a week after Katrina's flooding plunged New Orleans into chaos, Hunter drove a group of officers to the bridge in a rental truck in response to another officer's radio call for help.
Hunter said he spotted several people on the bridge before he reached out the driver's side window and fired warning shots in the air
As Ronald Madison and his brother, Lance, ran up the bridge, another group of people scrambled for cover behind the concrete barrier. Hunter testified that he jumped out of the truck and fired his department-issued handgun at the Madisons but didn't hit them as they ran.
Hunter said he didn't view them as a threat but fired at them without identifying himself as a police officer or issuing a warning "mostly because I wasn't thinking straight." Hunter said he believed the Madisons may have shot at police officers on the bridge.
Turning attention to the concrete barrier, Hunter said he yelled, "Cease fire!" at Bowen and at least one other officer who was shooting. The gunfire momentarily stopped before Bowen allegedly leaned over and fired more shots.
"There was no threat," Hunter said. "I was shocked."
Driving the truck to the top of the bridge, Hunter saw the Madisons and a third man running away. He and two other officers hitched a ride with a Louisiana State Police trooper and chased them to the west side, where former officer Robert Faulcon allegedly shot Ronald Madison in the back with a shotgun.
Bowen walked up and asked, "Is this one of them?" before he stomped on Madison several times, Hunter added.
"He was very angry," Hunter recalled. "He had a very malicious look in his eye."
Hunter said he and other officers who fired guns later gathered at a makeshift police station to discuss the matter.
"It was pretty obvious that they were initiating a cover-up," he said. "They didn't separate us and ask us questions individually. Nothing was collected from the scene."
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