Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry on Tuesday declined any criminal charges against the two white Baton Rouge police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, in July 2016 outside a convenience store.
Landry said that after a "thorough and exhaustive review of the facts," his office "cannot proceed with the prosecution of either Officer (Howie) Lake or Officer (Blane) Salamoni."
"During that encounter, Mr. Sterling continued to resist the officers' efforts," Landry said at a news conference after meeting with members of the Sterling family. "The officers used verbal commands of varying degrees and tried to control Mr. Sterling with several nonlethal techniques.”
The Sterling family and their attorneys said they were disappointed but not surprised by the decision, resolving to push forward with their lawsuit against the city and calling on voters to hold politicians accountable at the voting booth.
“Yes, the system has failed us. Yes, we are disappointed,” said Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Sterling’s oldest son. “But as a family we’re going to stay strong and we’re going to keep each other prayed up.”
The Sterling family and their attorneys said they were disappointed, but not surprised, that the attorney general declined to bring charges ag…
Landry’s decision concluded his office's almost 10-month review of the incident, which followed the U.S. Department of Justice's May announcement that prosecutors would not bring federal civil rights charges against the officers. Federal authorities were quickly called in to investigate the shooting, as nightly protests erupted after cellphone videos of the incident went viral.
The case also prompted an ongoing discussion about the Baton Rouge Police Department's relationship with the city's black communities. It was the beginning of a hard summer in Baton Rouge, followed weeks later with the ambush killing of three law enforcement officers. A month later, many officers in Baton Rouge lost their homes in the August flood, as did many in the neighborhoods they patrol.
Not long after midnight on July 5, 2016, Lake and Salamoni had responded to a call about a man selling CDs outside the Triple S Food Mart brandishing a gun at another man, who called 911 to report the incident. Their brief encounter with Sterling ended with him being shot six times.
When announcing their decision against charges last May, federal prosecutors said they could not prove a civil rights violation beyond a reasonable doubt. But they also called the videos of Sterling's shooting "disturbing" and referred to his death as a "tragedy." They described the entire encounter more in private meetings with Sterling's family and some community members.
In those meetings, Salamoni was described as putting his gun near Sterling’s head and yelling a profanity-filled threat to shoot him. Those sources said Salamoni’s actions, which came almost immediately after his arrival on the scene, were described as escalating the encounter. Multiple sources who’ve viewed video and other evidence in the case confirmed that description in interviews with The Advocate.
But in his report, Landry described Salamoni’s approach and actions as being at least momentarily effective and didn’t criticize that aspect of the incident.
Landry’s report said Salamoni initially assisted Lake — who arrived before him — in trying to get control of Sterling’s arms, as they had been told he was carrying a gun.
When the officers failed to control Sterling, the report’s narrative about the events said Salamoni drew his firearm, but doesn’t say where he pointed it. However, the report did note that the officer told Sterling, “Don’t f****** move or I’ll shoot you in your f****** head.”
Landry’s report described this “stern” command as temporarily working, as Sterling is then directed to a vehicle. During this time, Landry in his news conference said Salamoni held his weapon "trained on Mr. Sterling at arms length."
But the officers failed to take Sterling into custody and Lake eventually attempted to stun him with a stun gun. Salamoni later tackled Sterling and wrestled with him on the ground.
In describing the incident, Landry said both officers worked together to try to control Sterling's two arms. Landry said Sterling "actively resists."
At that point, Landry said Salamoni drew his weapon and said, 'If you move I swear to God,' and then Salamoni "can be heard excitedly saying, 'he's got a gun.'"
Like federal authorities who emphasized that they could not say whether Sterling was reaching for a gun when he was on the ground, Landry noted that "during this portion of the struggle, Mr. Sterling was positioned in a manner that concealed the lower right half of his body, and, more particularly, his right front pocket." He also said that the incident "took place very quickly and involved two officers who had good reason to believe that Mr. Sterling was armed with a firearm."
Landry said Salamoni can be heard saying, 'He's going for the gun,' and the officer then fired three shots into Sterling's chest.
Landry said Sterling then "quickly sits up and rolls to his left away from officer Salamoni," which Landry said created an angle for the officers where Sterling's right side appeared to be concealed. As Sterling tries to get up, Salamoni fires three more shots into Sterling's back.
Landry's report refers to Sterling's "very extensive history with the Baton Rouge Police Department," including a May 2009 arrest that Landry said "mirrors" the shooting in front of the Triple S "in all but the outcome." Landry referred to the autopsy that found Sterling had a blood alcohol level of 0.029 and traces of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine in his system at the time of his death as a contribution “to his noncompliance.”
The report concluded that Salamoni and Lake properly used various verbal and nonlethal actions to subdue Sterling before Salamoni had to resort to a justified use of lethal force.
"I know the Sterling family is hurting," Landry said during his news conference. "I know they may not agree with this decision. I am ever-mindful that a mother who prematurely loses a son or a child who loses a father experiences a pain that no one should have to endure."
L. Chris Stewart, an attorney for the Sterling family, objected to the inclusion of Sterling’s toxicology report and criminal history in the attorney general's report, arguing that those factors had nothing to do with the night Sterling was fatally shot.
Stewart also said the family would have liked to see the case go before a grand jury, calling Landry’s report biased. He said Landry should have re-interviewed all witnesses and looked for other expert opinions on the case.
Landry said his office had conducted an "exhaustive" re-investigation of the case, including contacting several witnesses of the Sterling shooting. But in many cases, the report shows that witnesses said they had nothing to add beyond what they already had told Baton Rouge police and the FBI. One witness would not even tell the agents where she lived and declined to be interviewed as part of the state investigation.
His report cites two use-of-force experts originally consulted by the U.S. Department of Justice. The experts said they concluded the shooting of Sterling was justified, saying Salamoni — who fired his weapon six times — had a reasonable fear that Sterling was reaching for a gun in his pocket.
Two use of force experts hired by the U.S. Justice Department criticized the actions taken by Baton Rouge police officers Blane Salamoni and H…
David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami, said he found Landry's decision not to prosecute the officers to be reasonable, "when you look at the entire picture." While video of the shooting ignited several nights of protests in 2016, that evidence, Weinstein said, "offered only a snippet of the circumstances."
But Weinstein also agreed with Prem Burns, a longtime former prosecutor in Baton Rouge, that Landry misstated, in his investigative report, the threshold for presenting a criminal matter to a grand jury. Landry said he could not bring the Sterling case to a grand jury because he lacked "sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction."
Burns said Landry appears to have confused that standard with what is required in Louisiana for a grand jury to indict a criminal defendant. Many controversial police shootings around the country have been brought to grand juries in recent years, including the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Jonathan Ferrell, a former college football player, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
While the secrecy of grand juries has been criticized, Burns said it's common practice — and well within a prosecutor's discretion — to bring police shootings to a grand jury, an additional layer of review that she said "would have lent credibility and transparency" to Landry's decision.
"He misunderstood the whole process," Burns said of the attorney general. "You a want a fair cross section of the community to make a decision in a case like this. This is too controversial of a case and too close a call."
Landry said in a text message Tuesday that he stands by his "decision and report."
Landry did not release any video or audio of the incident, and a spokeswoman said they would not comment on why he did not do so. Landry also declined to take any questions after the news conference. While multiple cellphone videos were released soon after the incident, 911 recordings and store surveillance footage have yet to be widely distributed beyond investigators, although city officials have said they will release the materials after finishing an internal affairs investigation.
Landry was clear that his office did not try to determine whether Lake or Salamoni followed BRPD policy or procedures or if certain tactics or language were "more appropriate than others," he said.
That decision now lands with newly appointed Baton Rouge police Chief Murphy Paul, who said he will decide by the end of the week on any potential discipline of the officers, which can include termination, suspension or no action. Many in the Baton Rouge community — including East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and the Sterling family lawyers — have called for the officers to be fired. Police Department leaders have said any internal discipline could only come at the close of all criminal investigations.
Baton Rouge police Chief Murphy Paul plans to hold closed disciplinary hearings this week with the two officers involved in the July 2016 kill…
Attorneys for Salamoni and Lake both said they were not surprised by the attorney general's decision, but welcomed it.
"The decision, it's expected, (but) we are relieved that it's over with," Salamoni's lawyer, John McLindon, said. He said having two separate governmental agency investigations come to the same conclusions "speaks volumes.”
"We would have preferred that they happened sooner, but there was a thorough investigation by both departments," said Kyle Kershaw, Lake's attorney. "I don't believe (Lake) did anything wrong, he followed correct police procedures."
McLindon also called the fact that Sterling was on multiple drugs during the encounter "crucial."
"That explains a lot," McLindon said. "Why he wouldn't comply with the officers' requests, why the Tasers wouldn't work. ... This is a man with a gun who's high on multiple drugs, that's a very dangerous situation."
But Stewart, the attorney for the Sterling family, said that Landry made a “political decision” in declining charges.
“It takes courage to fight for justice. And we didn’t see that in this situation,” Stewart said after Landry’s announcement. “We were disappointed that they’re not seeking justice.”
The Baton Rouge Police chief's decision about disciplinary action for the two white officers involved in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling …