Thursday, August 28, 2008

New Orleans Three Years Later: Justice Eludes Danziger Victims...

Ronald Madison, 40, seen in this undated family photo, was shot dead on the Danziger Bridge in New Orleans East Sept. 4, 2005.

by Jarvis De Berry

Maybe one day Lance Madison and his family will encounter somebody in the criminal justice system who hasn't had his integrity, competence or allegiances questioned.
Ronald Madison, 40, seen in this undated family photo, was shot dead on the Danziger Bridge in New Orleans East Sept. 4, 2005.

Starting with Sept. 4, 2005, however, the Madisons have run a gantlet of allegedly murderous police officers, incompetent prosecutors and a judge accused of having too cozy a relationship with those affiliated with the accused officers.

The Sunday after Hurricane Katrina on the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans, police killed Lance Madison's mentally retarded brother Ronald, then took Lance Madison to a makeshift jail on the accusation that he and Ronald had been trying to kill the officers.

The family has described Ronald Madison, 40 years old with the mental capacity of a child, as harmless. His protective older brother Lance, then 48, had a reputation beyond reproach: 25 years working at FedEx; no criminal record. By contrast, the witness who told police he saw the Madisons shooting at them is a convicted criminal who was in New Orleans after Katrina pretending to be a deputy from St. Landry Parish.

Believing Lance Madison's version of events -- that police attacked him and his brother with no provocation from them -- prosecutors in former District Attorney Eddie Jordan's office successfully sought murder indictments against seven police officers.

But those indictments, Judge Raymond Bigelow ruled Wednesday, were ill-gotten because prosecutors broke laws governing grand jury proceedings. Judge Bigelow's ruling may be legally sound, but the Madisons have reason to wonder if he should be on the case.

Judge Bigelow employs a woman married to the spokesman of the Fraternal Order of Police, a major backer of the accused officers. Another employee's father is defending one of the accused officers in court. The judge's law clerk is a former partner of a lawyer representing an accused officer.

Judge Bigelow didn't hide those connections. He revealed them the first time he held a hearing on the case, but he said he thought he could be fair and shouldn't have to recuse himself. That was Jordan's time to object. Maybe a judge with absolutely no connections to either side could have taken over.

But Jordan waited till six months after Bigelow's disclosure, when the judge granted a ruling sought by the defense, to ask that Bigelow recuse himself. Jordan's timing gave the impression that he was seeking not impartiality but a referee who wouldn't rule against him, and his office's request for a new judge was denied.

The Madisons deserve better. We all do. We deserve a non-abusive police force whose officers maintain their heads and properly assess a situation even in times of crisis.

We deserve prosecutors who know not to indict people who've been promised immunity and are careful not to share the things said during grand jury testimony with others.

We need judges who recognize that confidence in the criminal system is eroded when a victim's family believes the judge has even a passing interest in which side prevails in court.

The accused deserve a functioning criminal justice system, too. The state must be made to play by the rules, and Bigelow's ruling is a reminder of that. Even if prosecutors were motivated by the Madisons' great anguish over Ronald Madison's death, they still had an obligation to be careful and methodical, lest their incompetence make a trial impossible and intensify the Madisons' anguish.

This city may be divided between those who support the Madisons and those who support the officers, but both sides should agree that a criminal justice system designed to serve us all isn't doing much for anybody.

Bro. Jarvis De Berry is an awarding winning journalist and editorial writer at the New Orleans Times-Picayune...He along with members of the New Orleans Times-Picayune Staff recently won a Pulitzer Prize for their amazing reporting post-Hurricane Katrina and also for an open letter to Mr.Bush concerning the Hurricane Katrina Fiasco entitled
Dear Mr. President...Bro. De Berry like W.E. A.L.L. B.E.'s founder and Minista of Information R2C2H2 Tha Artivist is an alum of Washington University and The John B. Ervin Scholars Program...Bro. Deberry can be e-mailed at or called at (504) 826-3355

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