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mural depicting Alton Sterling, near where he was killed during an incident with Baton Rouge Police almost a year ago, on July 5, 2016, outside the Triple S Food Mart on North Foster Drive. Photographed June 28, 2017.

The upcoming trial in the civil suit filed on behalf of Alton Sterling's five children will remain in East Baton Rouge Parish — for now. 

On Monday, Judge William Morvant of the 19th Judicial District Court rejected a change of venue request filed by lawyers representing the city of Baton Rouge, who argued that the local jury pool had been poisoned by media coverage and recent protests over police brutality.

Morvant said he'd entertain a request to move the trial if, during jury selection, it becomes clear that they're unable to find citizens who haven't already formed an opinion on the case.

"The test isn't going to be: 'Have you heard anything about this'?" Morvant said. "I think if we go anywhere within the four corners of this state that's going to be pretty hard to do."

Parish Attorney Andy Dotson filed the motion shortly after The Advocate reported last year that the city-parish had offered a $2.5 million settlement to Sterling's five children, who lost their father in a 2016 police shooting that ignited protests nationwide.

Dotson argued that the disclosure incorrectly implied an "admission of liability" that could bias a jury against the defendants. He also alleged, without evidence, that the plaintiff's attorneys had leaked the information, and asked Morvant to find them in contempt of court for violating a "gag order" that had been placed on participants in the case. 

Chris Stewart, one of several attorneys representing Sterling's children, called Dotson's motion extreme and said it was inappropriate for him to point fingers at them without proof. He said the accusations were "borderline defamation."

Dotson asked that the trial — currently scheduled for March 1 — be moved to a parish with a "similar ethnic mix for a jury pool" that's outside of The Advocate's primary area of circulation. He suggested Claiborne, Morehouse, St. James, St. John the Baptist or Tensas parishes.

Michael Adams, another Sterling family attorney, said it didn't make sense to move the case from East Baton Rouge Parish — the most populous parish in the state — to a rural setting, even if the racial make-up were similar. 

Morvant interjected, jokingly: "You’re telling me that Convent and Edgard are not the equivalents of East Baton Rogue?"

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Dotson also cited this summer's Black Lives Matter protests as potentially damaging to the case and asked that the trial take place in a parish that didn't experience demonstrations against police misconduct, a request the plaintiff's attorneys called improper. 

"I venture to say that practically every city in America had a protest this summer after the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor," Adams noted. 

Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by a police officer in the summer of 2016 during an altercation outside the Triple S Food Mart on North Foster Drive. The lawsuit, filed in 2017, alleges that the shooting exemplified long-standing problems of racist attitudes and excessive force among Baton Rouge police officers. 

It also argues that the officer who fired the shots, Blane Salamoni, violated Sterling's constitutional rights and that BRPD and the city of Baton Rouge were negligent in their hiring and training practices.

Video footage of the brief encounter shows Salamoni tackling Sterling, struggling to gain control of his arm, yelling that Sterling had a gun, and then firing his own weapon, all in rapid succession. That chain of events is what led state and federal prosecutors to decide against pressing charges against either officer, though BRPD internal investigators concluded Salamoni had used excessive force.

Morvant also rejected Monday a separate request from parish attorneys to clarify whether there will be caps on payouts if a jury decides the city is liable for state tort claims lodged against them. They argued that statutes limit the maximum payout to $1 million, but Morvant said the question was premature and will be addressed if necessary after the trial. 

Morvant ended the hearing by imploring the lawyers to "go forward, and talk no more!"


Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater