By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Four former New Orleans policemen convicted of shooting unarmed people following Hurricane Katrina were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on Wednesday in what the U.S. government described as the most important police misconduct case since the Rodney King beating nearly two decades ago.
The four former officers - Kenneth Bowen, Robert Faulcon, Robert Gisevius and Anthony Villavaso - were sentenced by a federal judge to between 38 and 65 years in prison. A fifth former officer - Arthur "Archie" Kaufman - who did not participate in the killings but engineered a four-year cover-up of the crimes was sentenced to six years.
The New Orleans police case was the "most significant police misconduct prosecution since Rodney King," U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas Perez said, referring to the beating of a black motorist by Los Angeles police officers in 1991 that was caught on videotape.
In both the Los Angeles and New Orleans cases, the federal government stepped in to prosecute the police officers for misconduct after local efforts failed.
The five former New Orleans officers sentenced on Wednesday were among a dozen officers who responded to a radio call that police were being shot at near the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans just days after Hurricane Katrina.
The officers packed into a rental truck and sped to the site. Witnesses testified that when the officers arrived, they jumped out of the truck and repeatedly fired assault rifles, shotguns and handguns at civilians walking on the bridge.
James Brissette, 17, and Ronald Madison, 40, were killed in the shooting spree.
In reports filed by the officers or on their behalf, they claimed they shot only after being threatened or fired on and that they had seen weapons in the victims' hands.
Kaufman was later convicted of planting a handgun at the scene.
Lance Madison, who was with his brother when Ronald Madison was killed, and who was later arrested and jailed on false charges, told the judge on Wednesday that "I truly don't know why I am alive today."
"These officers shot Ronald down like an animal," he said. Turning to the defendants, he said: "You are responsible for the nightmares that have devastated my family."
The sentencing of the five men in New Orleans federal court completed one of the last cases of police misconduct more than six years after the devastating hurricane flooded the city and triggered a chaotic aftermath.
Some 1,500 people died and tens of thousands were left homeless. In the days immediately after the hurricane an atmosphere of lawlessness prevailed and National Guard troops were brought in to bolster the overwhelmed New Orleans police.
Last August, a jury found Bowen, Faulcon, Gisevius and Villavaso guilty on multiple charges including federal civil rights violations stemming from the September 4, 2005, incident.
Bowen and Gisevius were sentenced to 40 years each and Villavaso to 38 years by U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Engelhardt. Faulcon was sentenced to 65 years.
Homicide detective Kaufman was convicted of covering up the crimes through a series of false reports and lies that continued for more than four years.
Another police detective charged with participating in the cover-up is slated for trial in May.
Federal prosecutors and the FBI took up the case in 2009 after a previous case brought by the New Orleans district attorney was thrown out because of a prosecutor's misconduct.
(An earlier version of the story was corrected to fix spelling of last name of Kurt Engelhardt, not Englehardt, and last name of James Brissette, not Bresette)
(Editing by Greg McCune and Lisa Shumaker)