Louisiana Didn’t Interview the Person Who Filmed Alton Sterling’s Death Before Clearing Cops of Murder
A controversial killing by cops in 2016 won’t be prosecuted by the state’s AG. The investigation leaves several important questions unanswered though.
BATON ROUGE, Louisiana—The Louisiana Attorney General’s office has declined to prosecute Baton Rouge police officers for the 2016 killing of Alton Sterling.
Sterling, a black man, was selling bootleg CDs outside a food mart when he was shot six times just after midnight on July 5 while officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake were trying to arrest him. His death sparked protests and a U.S. Department of Justice civil-rights investigation, which was also closed without charges last year.
“The officers in question acted as reasonable officers under existing law and were justified in their use of force,” Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry wrote in his office’s report on the shooting, which was released Tuesday.
It was never in doubt whether Landry was going to prosecute the officers. That was never going to happen. “They're not going to bring charges on anybody. Why would they do that?” Sterling’s aunt, Veda Washington, told CNN. “This is white America.”
The evidence was ambiguous. Sterling had a gun in his pocket, but video obtained by The Daily Beast showed Sterling was not reaching for the weapon when he was killed. The officers didn’t wait for backup and escalated the situation. Salamoni drew his gun and threatened to kill Sterling. “Don’t fucking move or I’ll shoot you in the fucking head,” he told him.
The public still hasn’t seen all the evidence from the shooting, and Landry said his office will release several unseen videos and recordings of the killing in the future.
But Landry’s sloppy investigation undermines his conclusion. The investigative report appears to show the Attorney General’s Office didn’t contact a key witness. At least one witness who filmed a cellphone video of the shooting from a car parked nearby was not mentioned in the interview section of the report. That video was what originally brought international attention to the shooting after it spread on Facebook.
While the report noted other witnesses refused interviews, this witness, who did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment, isn’t mentioned. The Daily Beast is not publishing their name to preserve their anonymity, since they have never been previously named in the media. Their interview would have been unlikely to make a difference in Landry’s ultimate decision, but it can be considered a major oversight.
A recent reorganization in the Attorney General’s investigations office could explain this carelessness. The investigations office, now called the Louisiana Bureau of Investigation, which oversaw witness outreach and interviews in Sterling’s case, is a vanity post for one of Landry’s largest donors, a millionaire shipping magnate named Shane Guidry.
The Bureau “does not and never has existed under state law,” said Lamar White, the publisher of the Bayou Brief, which has investigated the Attorney General’s Office. “[Guidry] just happens to be moonlighting as an employee of Landry’s office, with the title of ‘Head of the Criminal Investigations Unit.’”
Poor leadership could have been a reason for missing witnesses in the Sterling investigation, although Landry claims Guidry is doing a good job. “[Guidry’s] work has helped our office to cut costs and reduce waste and to more efficiently and aggressively combat crime,” Landry told the Advocate.
So maybe the investigation was flawed because the Attorney General’s Office just didn’t care.
Abdullah Muflahi, the owner of the store that Sterling was killed outside of, alleged police misconduct in a 2016 lawsuit. He said police had confiscated surveillance equipment, his cellphone, and videos of the shooting without a warrant. Muflahi also alleged officers held him in the back of a police car for four hours and forced him to urinate on the wall of his store rather than allowing him to use a restroom.
This mistreatment of witnesses should also have been investigated, but was not mentioned in the report either. After all, if you’re really dedicated to getting this right, how do you forget a key eyewitness?
In a social-media post after Sterling’s killing, the missing witness wrote, “I have been contacted and approached by the police, the FBI, CNN.”
Apparently just not by the Louisiana Attorney General’s office.