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RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: We begin tonight though with major developments in what had been one of the biggest scandals to rock the Gulf Coast region before the BP oil disaster came along. Less than a week after Hurricane Katrina struck the city of New Orleans, an NBC News camera crew was filming on a bridge over the Industrial Canal when they heard a commotion coming from the next bridge over. Here`s what NBC`s cameras caught that day.
Police officers in a rental truck not marked as a police vehicle firing their weapons at something. It`s not clear what from the NBC crew`s vantage point. According to the version of events offered by the New Orleans police, officers had confronted a gang of armed men. Those men shot at the police first and the police had returned fire. You can hear just how much fire in that clip. That was the story from the New Orleans police at the time. What emerged later was very different story. The people on the Danziger Bridge, it turns out, were unarmed. They were simply crossing the bridge to try to find food and a safe place to stay as New Orleans drowned.
A police call did say that officers were being shot at on the bridge, but officers weren`t being shot at. Seven officers responded to that call and when the smoke cleared, two civilians were dead and four were wounded. None of the victims were armed. In the years since the Danziger Bridge shooting, the officers stuck to their story that they fired in self-defense. But that version of events started to unravel earlier this year when some of their fellow officers started pleading guilty to helping cover up what really happened. In April, Officer Michael Hunter became the latest to plead guilty to a cover-up that involved a planted gun, phony witnesses, falsified police reports, and lying to a state grand jury that had convened to investigate the case.
In the course of entering his guilty plea, prosecutors revealed Officer Hunter`s own account of what happened after the police began firing that day. According to the account, quote: ” Defendant Hunter saw several civilians who appeared to be unarmed, injured, and subdued. Sergeant A 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 account also describes what happened when the two officers drove to the other side of the bridge in pursuit of three men running away from the scene. One of them was a severely mentally disabled man named Ronald Madison. Officer Hunter`s account continues, quote:
“Officer A, without warning, fired a shotgun at Ronald Madison`s back as Madison ran away. As Ronald Madison laid dying on the pavement, Sergeant A ran down the bridge toward Ronald and asked an officer if Ronald was `one of them.` When the officer replied in the affirmative, Sergeant A began kicking or stomping Ronald Madison repeatedly with his foot.”
Ronald Madison later died, as did 17-year-old James Brissette. Four other people, all unarmed, were wounded that day. Murder charges were brought in the case initially, but those charges were dropped in 2008. And all of that led up to what happened today. Nearly five years after those shootings, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared in New Orleans to announce federal charges against six current and former New Orleans police officers. Four of them were charged today with firing their weapons illegally, resulting in the deaths of James Brissette and Ronald Madison, as well as the wounding of four others. One of the officers, Sergeant Kenneth Bowen, was also accused of kicking and stomping Ronald Madison as he was dying.
Those four officers have also been charged with lying about the shootings and conspiring to falsely prosecute the brother of one of the victims. He was arrested at the scene but charges against him were later dropped. If convicted of these federal charges, the four officers could face life in prison or even the death penalty if the Justice Department decides to pursue it. Two other police officers were also charged today with participating in the cover-up, including falsifying evidence and witness testimony, and planting a weapon at the scene.
ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Today marks an important step forward in administering justice, in healing community wounds, in improving public safety, and in restoring the public trust in this city`s police department. We will not tolerate wrongdoing by those who are sworn to protect the public. This will not stand.
MADDOW: All six officers indicted today have now officially surrendered to federal authorities. The U.S. attorney in New Orleans considers them all to be flight risks and is pushing to have them all detained, i.e., jailed before their trial. This is huge news for New Orleans. This is huge news for the nation still not yet come to terms with the aftermath of what really happened after Hurricane Katrina. We will keep you posted as this