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New Orleans police go on trial in Katrina shooting deaths

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Wednesday in the trial of five police officers accused of shooting and killing of two people and wounding of four others days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.

The case, one of a string of federal civil rights prosecutions brought against local police, is one of the largest police brutality cases ever mounted by the U.S. Justice Department, according to legal analysts.

The officers, some of whom are still on the job, face multiple counts of deprivation of civil rights, use of a weapon in a violent crime, or obstruction of justice.

The charges stem from a September 4, 2005, shooting incident on the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans and from an alleged cover-up that went on for years afterward.

The trial of Kenneth Bowen, Robert Faulcon Jr., Robert Gisevius Jr., Arthur Kaufmann and Anthony Villavaso II is expected to last up to six weeks. A sixth defendant, Officer Gerard Dugue, is scheduled for trial in the fall.

Killed in the shootings were James Brissette, 17, and Ronald Madison, 40.

Five other current or former officers have pleaded guilty to various charges and admitted to being either directly involved in the Danziger Bridge incident or aiding in an alleged cover-up.

"The alleged cover-up adds a whole different dimension to the case," said former federal prosecutor and New Orleans attorney Harry Rosenburg said.

"It's not just about how officers might have reacted on that day but what occurred in the following several years after the dust settled, ranging from false reports to fictitious witnesses to an allegedly planted weapon," he said.

Working from a makeshift station in the aftermath of the Katrina's flooding, the officers in question received a call that police officers were being fired upon on the Danziger Bridge, according to court documents.

A number of them jumped into a Budget rental truck and headed for the bridge. The shooting began when the group came upon unarmed civilians who were walking on or near the bridge, the documents said.

Other officers have testified that two officers who jumped from the truck fired on the civilians, with one sergeant firing repeatedly as they lay wounded on the ground.

Rosenburg said a key question in the trial will be whether any officers were actually fired upon that day and, if so, who did the shooting.

In March, two former New Orleans cops were sentenced to prison for their roles in killing a man and burning his body shortly after Katrina.

A few weeks before that sentencing, the Justice Department released a scathing report of local police practices following a lengthy probe and is expected to eventually impose an order mandating dozens of changes.

Civil rights professor Jack Beerman told Reuters the trial could be the most significant case of alleged police brutality since members of the Los Angeles police department faced charges in the beating of civilian Rodney King in the 1990s.

Los Angeles residents rioted in April 1992 when those officers were found innocent.

"The important thing is a sense of justice for the community," said Beerman, of the Boston University School of Law. "If locals perceive that the government is not responding when civil rights are violated, you have a problem."

The officers in the Danziger case initially faced murder or attempted murder charges. But a judge tossed the case out of court in August 2008, citing errors by the prosecutor's office. In July 2010, federal prosecutors indicted the officers on the civil rights charges.

(Editing by Karen Brooks and Peter Bohan)

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