Yes, It Can Happen
I never thought that in real life the police framed people for crimes that they didn’t do. I have practiced public defense law for 38 years. I represented lots of men charged with murder. I think of myself as being pretty experienced after almost four decades. I have never considered myself naïve about the police, nor am I overly cynical. And while I had clients who raised the possibility of having been framed by the police, I mostly remained closed to those suggestions. I just didn’t think that’s the way the real world worked.
Then I read Shots on the Bridge, by Ronnie Green. This is a terrific book about the post-Katrina shootings on the Danziger Bridge by a number of New Orleans police officers and the subsequent legal proceedings. It has been released just in the last several months, and I highly recommend it. Here’s a few thoughts about the book.
It is a story about how some police officers stayed behind. New Orleans in the days after Katrina sounds like Mad Max. Hundreds if not thousands were stranded in their homes, attics, or hotel rooms, usually without power. Survivors huddled on rooftops. Most civic structures broke down, including the police department. There was no command structure in the police department. Some officers sent their families to safety and then began to report to work, working long hours, commandeering boats, rescuing people from rooftops, finding pets and leading them to safety. Some officers began to break down themselves, but there was no one around to send them home due to their stress. Some officers “headed into New Orleans’s streets prepared for combat, occasionally passing dead bodies floating face down, and on high alert for the desperate or the deranged.” Because of the flood, police showed up for duty at the Crystal Palace, a high spot in the city which became a makeshift command center.
It is a story of how citizens of New Orleans tried to survive. Greene focuses on two families—one the family of Susan Bartholomew who made the mistake of trying to wait out the storm. When they ran out of medicine, they tried to leave their hotel room and make their way to a nearby Winn-Dixie. The other family consisted of two brothers, one a 40 year old man with intellectual disabilities named Ronald Madison who refused to leave his dogs behind, and his brother Lance, a former football player who stayed behind to care for his brother. On September 4, 2005, both families left their place of safety to run necessary errands. “The Bartholomews and a teenage friend, James Brissette Jr., are headed toward a Winn-Dixie in search of medicine for a sick grandmother and cleaning supplies for their decrepit hotel rooms. On foot, the Madison brothers set out for their mother’s home two miles away…Each family will traverse the Danziger Bridge to reach their destination.”
It is a story of how New Orleans police officers gunned down members of both families. That morning about 9:00 a.m., a call was made to the Crystal Palace saying “Officer’s life in danger! Shots being fired.” Officers ran from the Palace to a rental truck armed mostly with their own Ak-47s, pump actions shotguns, and an M4 high powered rifle. The officers didn’t speak as the truck traveled the 3 miles to the bridge. As they pulled up to the bridge, they immediately began to shoot wildly at the persons they saw near the bridge—the Madison and Bartholomew families. They did so without any information that the Madisons and Bartholomews were associated with the call regarding shots. They killed James Brissette, Jr., 17. They shot Susan Bartholomew’s arm nearly off. They shot her daughter in the stomach and her husband in the head. Another family member is shot in the neck, jaw, stomach, elbow, and hand. Ronald Madison, the 40 year old intellectually disabled man, died of 7 shots to the back. Lance Madison was arrested and charged with trying to kill the officers. None of the members of the two families was armed. None had tried to shoot anybody.
It is a story of a massive, clumsy, and insidious cover-up that included framing Lance Madison. In the introduction, Greene describes what happened next. “”In just moments, before police gather a single piece of evidence or question a single potential witness, with blood and bodies splayed around them, the NOPD officers and brass standing atop the Danziger Bridge will decide that the people they just fired upon, two lying dead and four maimed, are criminals…In the coming days and months, police will plant a phony gun, invent witnesses, craft fictional reports, and launch a public relations campaign portraying the officers as heroes infused with bravery amid the horrors wrought by a hurricane. Behind the scenes, a racial divide is exposed within the ranks. When a group of white sergeants and lieutenant begin putting their tale on paper, they initially report that only the black officers struck the victims with bullets atop the Danziger Bridge, separating the white officers from the bloodshed. Another fiction. For a decade the families of the victim will press for truth, pierce the police façade, and uncover the lies buried with their kin. Justice for these families will not come swiftly or kindly after the shots on the bridge.”
Eventually, the officers were charged, some pled guilty, and some went to trial. The tale is riveting and tangled. First, the officers were viewed as heroes, portrayed as public servants who remained behind and were attacked on the bridge. Then the worm turned, and evidence came out that what had in fact occurred was murder on the bridge, murder of innocents struggling to survive in the aftermath of the storm. In all, six officers were charged with murder and attempted murder. Lance Madison was released from jail. His family began to mourn the murder of their son and brother. The police union went on the attack and urged support of the officers. In August of 2008, the state trial judge dismissed the entire case, ruling that there had been pretrial prosecutorial misconduct. For a time, it appeared that justice for the Bartholomews and Madisons would not occur. But then the feds picked the case up, and this time the indictments stuck. Eventually, some officers pled, and some were convicted at trial. The trial judge, however, learned that prosecutors in the federal system had posted on NOLA.com, criticizing the NOPD prior to trial, and granted new trials. On August 18, 2015, almost ten years after the hurricane, the 5th Circuit upheld the decision to grant the five officers a new trial.
The reporter ends the book reflecting on what has been occurring in this country over the last 14 months. One of the most chilling parts of the book is the epilogue, a chapter added on, seemingly unrelated to the shots on the bridge, but in every way spot on. Greene speaks of Walter Scott being gunned down on April 4, 2015, by Michael Slager in North Charleston, SC, captured by a bystander on his cell phone. He notes that on July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, had been killed by officers arresting him for illegally selling single cigarettes. He adds that on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, 18, had been gunned down on the street in Ferguson, Missouri. Freddie Gray had been killed in a police van on April 19, 2015. These killings by the police had sparked a “new civil rights movement.”
Greene reflects on these cases in the context of the shootings on the bridge as he watched the oral arguments in April 2015 in the 5th Circuit. He concludes that “when police are the suspects, the barriers to achieving justice are that much higher…But exploring the shootings on the bridge, and the long, bumpy road to justice that followed, I could come to no other conclusion. Police gunned down innocent victims and built a paper trail of lies to cover their crimes. They were paraded as heroes in the city’s streets, beat back state charges, and, following their convictions in federal court, won an appeal on issues having nothing to do with the events of September 4, 2005.” He wonders whether the Scott, Garner, Brown, and Gray cases would somehow result in a “potential shift in the larger struggle to hold police officers accountable.”
Other random thoughts.
· I am reminded of how important federal jurisdiction can be sometimes when clear violations of civil rights have occurred. Having recently read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, it is an unfortunate fact that in many places, New Orleans, Monroeville, Alabama, and elsewhere, what occurs in state or municipal court can shake our faith in that system of justice and only the federal government is available to restore that faith.
· The prosecutorial misconduct that shocked both the federal and state judges goes on everyday unnoticed across the country. Social media, Facebook, Topix, and online comment sections of local papers, can become virtual cesspools of diatribe and accusation. And yet it is unimaginable that a change of venue motion would be granted as a result of what is in social media, much less that a new trial motion would be granted.
· I remain confused about how I feel about police unions. I grew up in St. Louis, a union town, and have always thought that unions were important to maintain working conditions, decent salaries, and benefits for all public servants and others. Yet, watching the police union in New York go after a local public defender, or turn their back on a mayor, made me cringe. And in New Orleans, the union organized a campaign to portray as heroes the officers who had gunned down innocent people.
· I was reminded again of the importance of context. Greene tells the story not only of the Bartholomews and Madisons, but also of each of the individual officers. I learned that one of the officers had been going to night law school and had just graduated prior to the hurricane. I learned that another sent his pregnant wife away from the hurricane and despite her delivery being imminent went back into the flood waters to help people. The officers who stayed behind in the chaos following Katrina saved innumerable lives going out in the days after the storm in boats pulling people to safety, rescuing them from rooftops. They were hearing false stories about rapes in the Superdome and looting throughout the city. And then right before the killings, they heard a report that a police officer was under attack and had perhaps been shot. They rode in the back of the truck at high speed, jumped out of the truck and immediately began firing. That Greene was able to evoke empathy for the officers, even under these egregious circumstances, told me something about the importance of the perspective of a narrative.
· One question I have asked myself is what this book has to do with being a public defender? Why wasn’t I seeing the matter more as a criminal defense lawyer, empathizing more with the lawyers defending the police rather than rooting for justice for the victims? It occurs to me that being a public defender is more than being a criminal defense lawyer. It is about insisting that poor people and people of color get justice, especially justice from the police. Public defenders marched in New York City in the protest of the death of Eric Garner and the failure to indict anyone thereafter. Other public defenders have marched and otherwise supported the Black Lives Matter movement. Public defenders are no longer “just” criminal defense lawyers. They are increasingly becoming advocates of social justice, lawyers and social workers and investigators seeking justice for poor people charged with crimes and their families. They are attacking illegal fines and fees that are trapping our clients and their families in their poverty. They are employing social workers to address the chronic social ills in which our clients and their families grow up. The justice being sought in the shooting on the bridge is the kind of justice that public defenders seek every day.
· My naiveté is now gone. People do get framed by the police. And public defenders are a vital part of the system to ensure that the attempts to frame, to distort, to overcharge, are not successful.