NEW ORLEANS – A woman who survived a barrage of police bullets but lost her arm in the shooting testified Monday that she never heard police issue a warning or identify themselves before they opened fire on her family during a deadly encounter on a bridge in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.
Susan Bartholomew, the first witness to testify in the trial of five current or former New Orleans police officers, said she felt bullets piercing her body as she huddled with her husband and teenage daughter behind a concrete barrier. She recalled that her daughter, lying on the ground next to her, tried to shield her body from the hail of gunfire.
"I prayed. I just called to the Lord because I didn't know what else to do," Bartholomew said.
Bartholomew said it wasn't until after the shooting stopped that she realized police officers had shot her, leaving her right arm hanging by just a strip of skin. She said the officers approached them as they lay on the bridge, threatened to kill them and yelled at them to hold up their hands.
"Of course I couldn't because my arm was shot off," she said. "I raised the only hand I had."
Earlier Monday, during the opening statements delivered by a federal prosecutor and defense attorneys, jurors heard vastly different accounts of the shootings that killed two people and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge less than a week after the 2005 storm's landfall.
Justice Department attorney Bobbi Bernstein described an out-of-control group of officers whose attitude on the morning of Sept. 4, 2005 was "shoot first and ask questions later" when they stormed out of a large rental truck and opened fire.
"They cut loose with assault rifles and shotguns and they did so without ever identifying themselves," Bernstein said.
Defense attorney Frank DeSalvo, who represents Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, said there was more fantasy than fact in Bernstein's opening statements.
"The government has created something that is better suited for a John Grisham novel," DeSalvo said.
Bowen, former officer Robert Faulcon, Sgt. Robert Gisevius and Officer Anthony Villavaso are charged in the shootings that killed 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, who was severely mentally disabled. The men were indicted last year on federal civil rights charges. Retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman is charged in the alleged cover-up.
Police are accused of plotting to plant a gun, fabricate witnesses and falsify reports to make the shootings appear justified. Five other former officers already have pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up. They are cooperating with the government and are expected to testify during the trial, which could last up to eight weeks.
Police allegedly fabricated statements from Bartholomew and her husband, claiming they said their nephew, Jose Holmes, was armed that morning and fired shots on the bridge. Bartholomew denied they told police anything like that and said nobody in her family had a gun.
When police investigators questioned her at the hospital, Bartholomew said she told them they were shot by National Guard troops because she was afraid to implicate the police.
"It was extremely intimidating," she said. "I didn't know what they would do."
Defense attorneys said their clients had honored their oaths to protect and serve, quickly beginning rescue missions even though they too suffered from the hurricane's destruction. They saw death and suffering, worked in horrifying conditions and heard gunshots so frequently at night they had to stop rescue missions when the sun went down.
They also heard rumors of violence, armed groups of looters and attacks on police, said Gisevius' attorney, Eric Hessler.
"You're going into a hot zone," Hessler said, describing his client's state of mind. "There are people with guns with, not only a propensity to shoot at cops, but to hit them. That weighs on your mind."
On the morning of the shootings, officers piled into a rental truck and drove to the bridge after hearing a radio call that other officers had taken fire.
Bernstein said Brissette was walking on the east side of the bridge with his friend, Jose Holmes, and the Bartholomews when the officers pulled up in the truck and started firing at them, sending them scrambling for cover behind the barrier. Holmes was lying wounded on the ground when Bowen walked up, pointed a gun at his stomach and fired a shot, according to the prosecutor.
"Jose clenched his stomach, and he reminded himself to breathe. And then Jose began to pray," Bernstein said.
Holmes survived, but Brissette died on the east side of the bridge. On the west side, Faulcon allegedly shot Madison in the back with a shotgun as he and his brother, Lance Madison, were fleeing from the gunfire. Ronald Madison was lying on the ground when Bowen walked over and asked a fellow officer, "Is that one of them?" before he repeatedly stomped on the dying man, Bernstein said.
"This was a tragedy for everyone involved, police officers and victims," said attorney Lindsay Larson, who represents Faulcon. "It was a horrible, terrible mistake, but it was not a federal crime."
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