BATON ROUGE, La. — After federal authorities announced they would not prosecute two white police officers in the shooting death of a black man, a refrain rang out from the man’s family, lawyers and supporters: It’s up to Louisiana’s attorney general to seek justice.
The Justice Department said it found insufficient evidence to charge either officer, Blane Salamoni or Howie Lake II, in the death of 37-year-old Alton Sterling last summer outside a Baton Rouge convenience store. The decision leaves Attorney General Jeff Landry to decide whether to pursue a case, but there already are signs that any state prosecution is a political minefield that the Republican might be seeking to avoid.
Landry said Wednesday he’s directed the Justice Department to forward its investigative materials to the Louisiana State Police. He called state police “the agency with the most expertise in officer-involved shootings” and said he assigned a prosecutor from his office to assist.
“As of now, we consider this matter an open investigation by (state police),” Landry said in a statement.
However, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who oversees the state police, said the investigation is in Landry’s hands. And State Police Col. Kevin Reeves sent a letter to Landry saying the state police will help Landry’s office if the attorney general decides further evidence collection is necessary.
“There has already been a very thorough investigation where the type of work that the state police would do, had it been the principal agency investigating this matter from the outset, has already been done,” the governor said.
The federal investigators found that Salamoni pointed a gun at Sterling’s head and later shot him three times after saying that Sterling was reaching for a gun in his pocket. Salamoni fired three more shots into Sterling’s back when he began to sit up and move, and the officers recovered a loaded revolver from Sterling’s pocket, the investigation found.
Landry has frequently clashed with Edwards on financial and legal issues and has pushed legislation aimed at punishing cities like New Orleans deemed to be “sanctuaries” for people in the country illegally. Landry also is a possible challenger to Edwards in the 2019 governor’s race.
In the immediate aftermath of Sterling’s shooting in July, the local district attorney recused himself from the investigation because of longstanding work relationships he has with Salamoni’s parents. One is a Baton Rouge police captain; the other is a retired police supervisor.
That left the investigation and any decision to pursue state charges up to Landry, a tea party-aligned Republican and former sheriff’s deputy who has been Louisiana’s attorney general since January 2016 after burnishing his conservative credentials as a one-term congressman.
During his tenure in Congress, he drew attention for his strong opposition to President Barack Obama. He refused to attend a congressional meeting with the president on the debt crisis and was perhaps best known for holding a “Drilling = jobs” sign objecting to Obama’s handling of domestic oil drilling during a 2011 Obama speech to Congress.
A lawyer for two of the Sterling children praised Landry even as he called on him to pursue a case against the officers.
“There can’t be any inaction by Attorney General Jeff Landry. If you follow his history, if you follow him, he tries to do the right thing. He has already prosecuted officers who have used force and killed someone in Louisiana,” said attorney Chris Stewart.
Stewart was referring to a case that Landry’s office brought against two Marksville law enforcement officers who opened fire on a car after a chase, killing a 6-year-old autistic boy and critically wounding his father.
Both deputy city marshals were charged with second-degree murder in Jeremy Mardis’ death. A judge sentenced one of the officers to 40 years in prison after a jury convicted him in March of lesser charges of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter. The other officer awaits trial later this year.
Michael Magner, a former federal prosecutor, worked on a high-profile case against New Orleans police officers charged with civil rights violations over a deadly shooting and cover-up in Hurricane Katrina’s chaotic aftermath. He said pursuing state charges such as negligent homicide might be easier for prosecutors than the high bar for a federal civil rights case. But even though jurors may be offended by the conduct, they often give police the benefit of the doubt in a split-second decision, Magner added.
“It’s just much easier to prove, but they still have those same jury considerations,” the defense attorney said.
Associated Press writer R.J. Rico contributed to this report.
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