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Louisiana Attorney General To Consider Prosecution In Alton Sterling Case

May 4, 2017
Originally published on May 4, 2017 10:21 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Louisiana, it's now up to that state's attorney general to decide whether to charge two white Baton Rouge police officers in last summer's shooting death of a black man named Alton Sterling. The U.S. Justice Department said yesterday they would not. After a 10-month investigation, prosecutors say they couldn't meet the burden of proof necessary to bring federal civil rights charges against those officers.

Family members and their lawyers say they're disappointed but also encouraged because there are new details about the shooting that make it more likely that the state will pursue a criminal prosecution. Joining us now to talk about all this is NPR's Greg Allen in Baton Rouge. Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: The shooting was almost a year ago, last July. Can you just get us up to speed on what new information has come out since then?

ALLEN: Sure. You'll recall that this happened outside of a Baton Rouge convenience store. Police had reports of a man with a gun there. They arrived at - the whole time during the confrontation, Alton Sterling had a gun in his pocket. It was never taken out. But investigators did this long investigation - 10 months, as you say - many witness interviews, careful analysis of six different videotapes, you know, enhancing the sound, and they've come up with kind of some new information and a timeline for what happened there. And a lot of the information focuses on one officer, a man named Blane Salamoni.

Shortly after they arrived on the scene to try to control Sterling, get him to comply, Salamoni held his gun to Sterling's head, as prosecutors say. The lawyers for the Sterling family say that the prosecutors told them that Salamoni actually threatened to kill Sterling at that point. There was then a struggle. They tasered Sterling twice, the officers did, got him down on the ground. At that point, Salamoni said twice, he's got a gun. After the second time, he fired three shots into Sterling's chest. Sterling then struggled to get up. As he started to sit up, Salamoni fired three more shots in Sterling's back.

MARTIN: So federal prosecutors say they can't meet the burden of proof to file charges. Any more details on what that means?

ALLEN: Well, we had a briefing yesterday from the acting U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Louisiana, Corey Amundson, talked to the family and then later briefed the media. He said because Salamoni couldn't be sure that Sterling didn't have a gun during this whole encounter, prosecutors can't show that he had willful intent to use unreasonable force to deprive him of his civil rights. Here's what Amundson had to say at his news conference yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

COREY AMUNDSON: Please know that experienced, highly trained federal agents and prosecutors worked hard to investigate and examine the facts to determine if a federal criminal case could be brought here. We have all concluded that no such case can be brought under federal law.

MARTIN: So now this goes to the state level. You would have thought a state investigation would have happened already. Why is it only happening now?

ALLEN: Well, what's happened is that the Baton Rouge East District Attorney recused himself because he knows Blane Salamoni's parents. He's sent it to the Attorney General Jeff Landry. He decided to defer this and wait for the federal investigation. Now that that's complete, it's being - all the information is being handed to state investigators. But the burden of proof in a state case is much different than a federal civil rights prosecution. Chris Stewart, a lawyer for two of Sterling's children, thinks all this new information about the shooting makes prosecution more likely. Here's what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS STEWART: In my experience with this cases, Attorney General Jeff Landry has a phenomenal case against these officers - not strong, phenomenal case against these officers.

MARTIN: Baton Rouge has been through a lot. I mean, after this shooting, there were days of protests, hundreds of arrests. It's worth remembering there was another tragedy, a sniper shot and killed three police officers. How is this community doing?

ALLEN: Well, it's been quiet yesterday. We had heavy rain all day long. I think there's a sense that the federal prosecution was always a long shot. They're all looking now to the attorney general. But yesterday, Salamoni's lawyers said that they think that the state prosecutors will draw the same conclusion that they can't bring charges.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Allen reporting in Baton Rouge, La. Thanks, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.