NEW ORLEANS – Susan Bartholomew described how she was lying on the bridge when the men who had just finished shooting her and her family ordered her to put her hands up. “I couldn’t do it,” she said in the hushed courtroom here, “because my right arm was shot off, so I put up the only hand I had.”
She was the first witness June 27 in the on-going trial here of retired New Orleans police Sgt. Arthur Kaufman. He is charged with covering up the deadly shootings of innocent people on the Danziger Bridge as they were on their way to search for food Sept. 4, 2005, just days after Hurricane Katrina had laid waste to their city.
Bartholomew’s amputated arm became a focal point of attention in the courtroom even before her testimony when the court officer asked her to raise her right arm to be sworn in. People sitting in the courtroom watched as she rose to her feet with a shawl covering the area where her arm had been and listened, as she explained why she couldn’t raise her right hand.
Bartholomew was walking across the bridge that day when the shooting began. She was with her husband, teenaged daughter, her 14 year-old son and his friend. The group had left the temporary shelter of an abandoned Family Inn Motel near the bridge and was out searching for food. Bartholomew’s diabetic mother was back at the motel. The thirsty and hungry group also needed cleaning supplies because of what Bartholomew described as the “filthy conditions” in their temporary shelter.
The shooting and killing began suddenly.
On Tuesday, the government presented Kelly Bryson, an FBI agent, as its 29th witness in the trial.
She testified that in 2009, after she had first met with Kaufman about the shootings, she felt his accounts of what had happened were “riddled with holes. There were some very specific areas that just didn’t make sense to us,” she said in the courtroom today.
Bryson was one of four FBI agents and three attorneys from the Department of Justice who met with Kaufman in 2009 because they wanted to see whether the high level of police force used on the bridge was justified. After the meeting, she said, the feds were convinced that the New Orleans Police Department’s own investigation needed to be probed and the federal government stepped in as prosecutor.
Kaufman was charged with supervising a whitewash of the NOPD investigation.
Four other current and former cops have been charged with shooting civilians on the bridge that day and playing a part in the cover-up.
Bryson said today that a key witness Kaufman described for the FBI, Lakeisha Smith, actually does not exist.
According to Bryson’s testimony, Kaufman never got a phone number or address for the “witness,” he had never ascertained a Social Security number, and that even police officers had told her that Kaufman had fabricated both the witness and her story line.
The same thing happened with another “eye witness,” James Youngman, who supposedly gave an account to Kaufman that would have justified shootings by police, Bryson said.
The Times-Picayune, the respected New Orleans daily newspaper, began strongly questioning, as early as 2007, whether Smith or Youngman actually ever existed.
Kaufman had told the FBI that he didn’t have paper or pen to document Youngman’s account (a tale about how people on the bridge had supposedly looted the Family Inn motel) but that he had supposedly written Youngman’s birth date on his hand.
Bryson also told the court today that Kaufman had skipped many basic investigative steps.
Though NOPD officers in a truck were allegedly under fire as they crossed the bridge, Kaufman admitted in the 2009 meeting with the FBI that he had never checked for bullet holes or marks on the trucks.
The trial here is in its third week. Five officers have already pleaded guilty in the case.
Photo: At a protest outside Federal court in New Orleans, June 27, on the opening day of the trial for five current or former New Orleans police officers charged in deadly shootings of unarmed residents on the Danziger bridge. Gerald Herbert/AP