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First degree murder in New Orleans?

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Susan Filan
Senior legal analyst

What happened on the Danziger Bridge in New Orleans just a few days after Hurricane Katrina hit? And why has the prosecution called it first degree murder, potentially carrying the death penalty?   Seven police officers have been indicted in the murder of two unarmed refugees fleeing from the aftermath of Katrina. 

The deadly shooting that killed two and injured four was captured exclusively by an NBC camera crew.  I have not seen the whole tape, but what I have seen is very hard to follow.   Nor have I heard the testimony that was presented to the grand jury so I don’t really know what the evidence is against these police officers.   But I do know this is a controversial case.   Some say the officers were heroes, trying to save lives in a dying city, risking their own to do so.   Others say these officers had become the predators and the refugees their prey in a deadly game of survival of the fittest.  

My understanding of the situation is that officers were responding to a call of “officer down”.   When they got to the bridge, they were not sure what the situation was, but they had to react in an instant.   They thought they saw someone reaching for a weapon and they opened fire.  The problem is the police were in a rental van, they were in plain clothes, may not have identified themselves as police, and no one else on that bridge was armed.   One of the victims was shot five times in the back.  Ronald Madison, who died on that bridge, was a 41-year-old “mentally retarded” man, according to his brother who said that Madison was unarmed and was trying to flee from a group of teens who had opened fire on him when the police jumped out of a rental truck.

The prosecution has said that a state of emergency does not suspend the rules regarding police use of deadly force.   But I am not sure that one can ignore the fact that this was Katrina, after all.   And while the rules are not suspended, one has to include the reality of Hurricane Katrina when evaluating the totality of the circumstances and trying to figure out just what happened that day on that bridge.  

The judge ruled that the seven police officers may be freed on bond and may return to work on a limited basis.   They are subject to electronic monitoring and are confined to home, work, attorney visits and court appearances according to defense counsel.  

While the prosecution has not yet decided whether to charge this as a death penalty case, I would be very surprised if they do.   But then again, these first degree murder indictments surprised me too.  I would love to know what evidence there is for a first degree murder conviction, because based on what I know thus far, I just don’t see it.

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