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Louisiana police officers, cleared of federal charges, face state probe

News 03 May 2017

left right Community members gather during a vigil at the Triple S Food Mart after the U.S. Justice Department announced they will not charge two police officers in the 2016 fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S., May 2, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman 1/2 left right Mourners pay their respects as they attend the funeral of Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 15, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman 2/2 By Bryn Stole | BATON ROUGE, La.

BATON ROUGE, La. Two white Louisiana police officers were spared federal charges on Wednesday in the fatal shooting of a black man last summer but still face a state criminal investigation, as the victim's family angrily demanded justice.

The death of Alton Sterling, 37, in Baton Rouge, the state capital, was one in a series of racially charged police killings that inflamed a national debate over treatment of minorities by law enforcement.

The decision not to charge the two officer by the U.S. Department of Justice came amid scrutiny of how aggressively Republican President Donald Trump's administration will seek to hold officers accountable. Both Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have criticized the Obama administration, saying it targeted police unfairly in civil rights investigations.

Sessions is still responsible for deciding whether to bring charges in other high-profile police killings, including the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York and the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland that same year.

U.S. Attorney Corey Amundson in Baton Rouge told reporters on Wednesday there was "insufficient evidence" to charge the officers with civil rights violations, in part because investigators could not determine whether Sterling was reaching for a gun at the time he was shot.

Sterling's family held a simultaneous news conference to call on Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry to pursue state criminal charges.

"Open up your heart, your eyes, and give us the justice that we deserve," Quinyetta McMillon, said the mother of Sterling's oldest son, fighting back tears.

Landry warned that a state investigation into the actions of the officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake, which was delayed to allow the federal probe to proceed, "could take a considerable amount of time."

Lawyers for the family said U.S. officials told them Salamoni was recorded on video threatening to kill Sterling less than 90 seconds before firing the fatal shots.

A lengthy summary of the Justice Department's findings released on Wednesday did not include that detail.

The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's state chapter, Marjorie Esman, said the decision was consistent with the Obama administration's approach in similar cases, given the high legal standard in federal civil rights cases.

Wednesday's events came a day after a white former South Carolina officer pleaded guilty in the 2015 shooting of an unarmed black man and a Texas officer was fired for shooting an unarmed 15-year-old boy on Saturday.

Sterling was killed on July 5, 2016, outside a convenience store, after a resident reported he had been threatened by a black man selling CDs.

In statements, the officers said that Sterling was attempting to pull a loaded gun out of his pocket when Salamoni opened fire, according to the Justice Department summary.

Videos of the incident did not conclusively show Sterling's hand when the first shot was fired, making it impossible to prove the officers' account was untrue, the department said. Two witnesses who said his hand was not in his pocket gave accounts that were inconsistent in other details.

The two officers are on paid administrative leave pending an internal police investigation.

Salamoni's attorney, John McLindon, said he expects the state will come to the same conclusion as the federal probe.

“There’s not going to be any finding of any criminal conduct,” McLindon said by phone Wednesday evening.

Lake's lawyer, Fred Crifasi, said the officer was relieved by the Justice Department's decision but would not comment further.

(Additional reporting by Dan Trotta and Gina Cherelus in New York, Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Letitia Stein in Tampa; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

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