Lawyers for East Baton Rouge Parish said a proposed $5 million settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Alton Sterling's five children is "excessive," according to an email they sent to members of Metro Council members ahead of their Wednesday vote on the payment.
The civil lawsuit, filed in 2017 against local leaders, alleges the 2016 police shooting that left Sterling dead exemplified longstanding problems of racist attitudes and excessive force within the Baton Rouge Police Department. The lawsuit is inching toward a March 2021 trial date, now more than four years after the Black man was killed during a struggle with two White police officers outside a Baton Rouge convenience store.
The shooting ignited protests against police brutality — and exacerbated deep divisions among Baton Rouge residents and leaders, often along racial lines — after cell phone video of the confrontation went viral online. Federal and state prosecutors declined to press charges against the officers involved, arguing Sterling reached for a handgun inside his pocket in the moments before the shooting.
Ahead of Wednesday's vote, the Metro Council is accepting comments via email or through an online form.
A resolution in the contentious ongoing civil case appeared possible last year when attorneys for both sides agreed to participate in nonbinding mediation. That resulted in the $5 million figure, a number the parish attorney's office ultimately disagreed with, according to the email.
Attorneys for the parish argue there are caps for wrongful death cases brought against a municipality, and said the plaintiffs could garner no more than $1 million in damages, though attorneys for the Sterling family dispute that.
"Our position is that a $5 million settlement is excessive and while it may send a message to law enforcement agencies and the municipalities wherein they are located, it also sets a unfounded precedence for our state, and more importantly the City-Parish," the lawyers wrote to the Metro Council members.
The email makes clear, however, that the parish attorney's office "would prefer a settlement over trial" to avoid the costs associated with litigating the case through the appeals process. It adds that it would be a "monstrous task" to clue in new members of the Metro Council to case history and trial strategies come January.
"We believe a number exists but it is not $5 million," the email reads.
Parish Attorney Andy Dotson wrote in a statement that the email was protected by attorney-client privilege and that it would be inappropriate for him to comment.
Councilwoman Chauna Banks, the sponsor of the measure that would settle the case, said she feels Sterling's life is being reduced and perceived as "less than" because he was Black.
"When I hear my colleagues say $5 million is too much, I just want to know, what if it was you and not Alton Sterling? Would $5 million be too much for your children?" Banks said.
Mike Adams, one of the attorneys representing the Sterling children, said he is surprised that the parish has refused to accept the mediator's proposed settlement, now several months after the mediation took place.
"It baffles my mind," he said. He said the mediator's proposed $5 million settlement is "several million dollars" lower than what plaintiffs argued for during the mediation process. "I think this case could be resolved if the parish attorney would simply recommend that the council accept the proposed settlement."
The parish attorneys in their brief to the mediator cited the settlements in the Danziger Bridge shootings out of New Orleans — when New Orleans police officers shot six unarmed citizens in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — as benchmarks for potential valuation. They said none of the individual plaintiffs in those cases received anything close to a $5 million settlement, though several officers were convicted and sentenced to prison time.
Adams said the Sterling lawsuit stands apart from other police violence cases like the Danziger Bridge shootings because Blane Salamoni, the officer who pulled the trigger and killed Alton Sterling, "was a rogue cop and the city knew that."
Police Chief Murphy Paul said last year that Salamoni did not disclose a previous arrest on his BRPD job application and was a "man who should have never, ever worn this uniform. Period."
The East Baton Rouge Metro Council is scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether to approve a proposed $5 million settlement in the civil lawsuit …