The path to this point in the Alton Sterling case has been a rollercoaster ride for the community and leaders of Baton Rouge. On Wednesday morning, Sandra Sterling hand-delivered a letter to the 19th Judicial District Criminal Court, requesting the Court to convene a meeting of the East Baton Rouge Parish Grand Jury to inquire into the shooting death of Alton Sterling. This is one of many attempts made by Sterling and concerned community members to seek justice in the shooting death of her nephew,Alton Sterling. Sterling hopes that the effects of the grand jury will force the State to charge and bring Blane Salamoni to trial to be tried for his actions, which led to the death of Alton Sterling.
This journey began on July 5, 2016, with the killing of Alton Sterling at Triple S convenience store. As seen on the recently released video footage, former Baton Rouge police officer Blane Salamoni immediately brandished his gun to Alton’s head after responding to a 911 call. He then ominously yelled that he would shoot Alton if he moved. He eventually did shoot Alton several times resulting in Alton’s death and subsequent outrage in the city. City-wide protests ensued and catapulted Baton Rouge into the national spotlight in the fight against police brutality and the killing of African American men.
After the shooting and the protests, the investigations began. The Department of Justice launched a civil rights investigation to determine if Alton’s civil rights were violated. The 10-month investigation ended on May 2017, when the Justice Department concluded there was not enough evidence to bring criminal civil rights charges. In order to bring charges, the prosecutors would have needed to prove that the officers, Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, lied about seeing Alton reach for a gun and willfully violated Alton’s civil rights by opening fire. From the evidence presented, the Justice Department felt there was insufficient evidence to contradict the officers’ account of the encounter.
Almost a year later in March 2018, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry declined to criminally charge the officers involved in the shooting. Jeff Landry said after a “thorough and exhaustive review of the facts” they decided not to prosecute the officers. The only shred of justice that seemed to come out of the incident is that Blane Salamoni was eventually terminated. However, Salamoni’s lawyer states that he will be appealing his termination with the Civil Service Board which is meeting today at 9:30 am.
So what does that mean for the community of Baton Rouge and the Sterling family? If the Sterling family is successful in getting the Grand Jury to inquire into the shooting, what will that mean?
WHAT IS A GRAND JURY?
A grand jury is asked to decide whether there is enough evidence to cause a person to be brought to trial for a crime. A grand jury consists of 12 members who are chosen in the same way as a trial juror but serve for a longer period of time. Grand Jury hearings are held in secret and only the district attorney, assistant district attorneys, witnesses and grand jurors are present. During the hearing, the grand jury will decide whether probable causes exists to support criminal charges The grand jury does not render a verdict of guilt or innocence; only whether there is enough evidence to charge the defendant at all. Its decision is an indictment, which is merely an accusation, or a decision that the person in question should stand trial to determine his/her innocence or guilt.
In this instance, a grand jury could have been convened by Attorney General Jeff Landry, but he chose not to prosecute the officers. Because of this, the Sterling family is seeking other means to have the case heard by a grand jury.
INDICTMENT vs. CONVICTION
It is the job of the grand jury to decide whether to indict and charge the defendant with a crime.. The grand jury should limit its investigation to legal evidence, but they have the discretion to review and request all available evidence which would also help them understand their task.
At the conclusion of a grand jury’s investigation, it shall act:
(1) By returning a true bill;
(2) By returning not a true bill; or
(3) By pretermitting entirely the matter investigated.
A true bill is an indictment, not a conviction. It means that the jury found enough evidence to charge the defendant with a crime and send the case to trial. The return of “not a true bill” does not operate as an acquittal, and does not preclude a subsequent charge of the crime if filed by the district attorney or by an indictment returned by a subsequent grand jury. At least nine members of the grand jury must concur in returning “a true bill” or “not a true bill.”
This new development in the Alton Sterling case could result in an indictment of the officers which would cause the case to be sent to trial. Then, and only then, could a conviction occur.