A Baton Rouge police officer is receiving no citations or criminal charges, not even a speeding ticket, after investigators found he was driving 94 mph on Airline Highway — almost twice the speed limit — when he caused a 2017 wreck that killed an infant and severely injured several other people.
Christopher Manuel was arrested on negligent homicide after the crash, which occurred while he was off-duty and driving his personal vehicle — an orange Corvette. The child's mother was also arrested on the same charge because detectives determined the baby likely wouldn't have died if her car seat had been properly strapped in.
Prosecutors spent months mulling charges against both parties but recently decided to take no action at all.
The case garnered national attention and prompted public outcry almost two years ago as advocates jumped to defend the mother, Brittany Stephens. Criminal justice experts also condemned the decision to arrest her under such circumstances and questioned law enforcement's motives.
But police said the woman had failed to secure her daughter's car seat, placing it instead on the SUV's center console between the two front seats, which allowed its ejection from the vehicle during the crash.
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Manuel remains an officer with the Baton Rouge Police Department. He was assigned desk duty after the crash and is still awaiting a resolution in the department's internal affairs process, which couldn't happen until after the decision from prosecutors.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said Tuesday his office decided not to bring charges against either Manuel or Stephens, reasoning that both had contributed to the tragic outcome even though "one suffered a bigger loss."
"It becomes a conundrum of 'Who's at fault?'" Moore said. "Do you really want to charge the mom with her child's death? Of course not. Which act truly caused the death, speeding or lack of proper restraint? Is one more culpable than the other? We couldn't really determine that based on the facts of the case and what the law requires."
In addition to the arrests, police recommended citations for several other people in the SUV with Stephens after finding various safety issues, including that there were too many occupants, none were wearing seatbelts and the driver was unlicensed. Prosecutors had two years to issue those citations but instead let the tickets expire without doing so.
They did the same for a misdemeanor speeding count against Manuel, which also expired last month. Louisiana law limits how long prosecutors can wait to file charges after an arrest, based on the seriousness of the alleged offense.
Moore said prosecuting Manuel for speeding would have meant essentially forfeiting the option to charge him with negligent homicide because of double jeopardy laws at the time. But once prosecutors ruled out the more serious charge, they could have chosen to issue the speeding ticket then with no major impacts on the case.
Marcus Allen, an attorney representing Stephens, said that's the least Moore's office could have done.
"How can you overlook the glaring fact that he was going almost 100 mph?" Allen said. "You just cannot operate a vehicle that fast. For him to walk away from this with no criminal charges … it almost appears he's above the law."
The crash occurred Oct. 12, 2017, when the driver of the SUV turned left onto Florline Boulevard while Manuel was traveling northbound on Airline Highway. Both had a green light at the time, and investigators initially questioned whether the SUV's driver failed to yield but concluded Manuel's excessive speed would have made it almost impossible to accurately judge the turn.
Investigators determined the officer's speed through a mathematical calculation and from data on the car's airbag control module, according to his arrest report. The speed limit for that section of Airline Highway is 50 mph.
"He was turning a public highway into a racetrack, driving 94 mph — that's what caused the crash," Stephens' attorney said. "That's what could have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt."
Allen volunteered to represent Stephens for free after news of her case went viral within some circles online. He said Moore's "unilateral decision" not to prosecute "has the look of impropriety" because the case involves a law enforcement officer and argued prosecutors could have avoided that by going forward with the case and allowing the criminal justice system to decide the officer's fate.
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Allen is also representing Stephens in a civil suit against Manuel, which alleges his negligent actions caused the wrongful death of her child Seyaira Stephens.
A separate civil suit was filed on behalf of several other people in the vehicle, including Brittany Stephens' mother, Janice Johnson, who owned the vehicle but wasn't driving when the crash occurred. That complaint details some of the injuries they sustained.
Johnson spent three months in the hospital before being transferred to a rehab facility in New Orleans. She suffered extensive injuries, including a crushed lung, broken bones and digestive problems, according to the complaint. Her appearance has been permanently altered. She has difficulty speaking and needs help with basic activities like bathing, eating and using the bathroom.
Three children — ages 7, 9 and 15 — were also hospitalized for months with serious broken bones and internal injuries, according to the complaint. The oldest is wheelchair-bound and has suffered "permanent physical deformities and scarring" in addition to diminished cognitive abilities that have prevented her from returning to school. Her medical bills totaled more than $700,000 when the complaint was filed in 2018.
In response to the claims against him, Manuel filed his own civil suit alleging the unlicensed driver of the SUV caused the crash when she turned "suddenly and without warning" into his lane. Manuel also was hospitalized after the crash, though the complaint doesn't describe the extent of his injuries.
His attorney, Ron Johnson, said Wednesday that prosecutors' decision not to file charges against Manuel was appropriate and not surprising. He said the case is more suited to resolution in the civil arena and acknowledged the "tragic loss for all parties concerned."
Attorneys for both sides said the civil complaints have been consolidated into one case that remains ongoing.
Meanwhile Manuel is also awaiting the resolution of BRPD's internal affairs case to see if he'll be disciplined for his actions. That decision was put on hold until prosecutors determined whether to file charges, per normal protocol for the department's discipline process.
Manuel was placed on administrative leave immediately following the crash and while recovering from his injuries. He was later brought back on restricted duty, working in the department's telephone reporting unit, police spokesman Sgt. L'Jean McKneely Jr. said.
A pre-disciplinary hearing for Manuel is expected in the near future, McKneely said. The chief will then decide whether the officer will face discipline, which could end with a suspension, demotion or termination.