BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The white police officer who shot a black man to death outside of a convenience store pointed a gun at the man’s head and threatened to shoot him before they wrestled on the ground, lawyers for the slain man’s family said Wednesday.
The new details about the alleged threat were revealed after federal prosecutors announced that they would not file charges against that officer and a second white Baton Rouge officer involved in the deadly encounter with Alton Sterling last summer.
Attorneys for Sterling’s family met with federal prosecutors before their announcement and later described the threat to the media. Chris Stewart, an attorney for two of Sterling’s sons, said the lawyers learned from U.S. Justice Department officials that Officer Blane Salamoni walked up to Sterling before their fatal confrontation and said: “I’m going to shoot you, bitch.”
The deadly confrontation was captured on witnesses’ cellphones and shared widely on social media, leading to protests in Baton Rouge. The officers’ body cameras and store surveillance also recorded the encounter but those videos have not been publicly released.
U.S. Attorney Corey Amundson mentioned that Salamoni drew his gun and pointed it at Sterling’s head, but he didn’t say anything about a verbal threat during his news conference. He went on to explain that there was not enough evidence to prove that Salamoni and Howie Lake II acted unreasonably and willfully.
Amundson didn’t immediately return messages asking him about the alleged verbal threat.
The investigation found that Salamoni shot Sterling three times after saying that Sterling was reaching for a gun in his pocket, and fired three more shots into Sterling’s back when he began to sit up and move, the prosecutor said.
The officers recovered a loaded revolver from Sterling’s pocket. Two independent use-of-force experts reviewed the case and criticized the way the officers handled the situation but did not find that they acted excessively, Amundson said.
The Justice Department’s decision may not be the final legal chapter, however, because state authorities will conduct their own investigation. The family called on state Attorney General Jeff Landry to bring charges.
“Jeff Landry, please open up your heart, your eyes and give us the justice that we deserve,” said Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Sterling’s oldest son.
Amundson said every agent and prosecutor involved in the probe believed federal charges were not warranted for Salamoni and Lake.
Sterling, 37, was selling homemade CDs outside the Triple S Food Mart when police were called to the store to investigate a report of a man with a gun.
Amundson said the officers’ encounter with the 6-foot-3, more than 300-pound Sterling happened in the span of about 90 seconds.
“Life and death decisions were being made in split seconds,” he said.
Salamoni’s lawyer said the officer was relieved he won’t face federal charges. John McLindon said the “stress of the unknown” has been hard on Salamoni and his family. He wouldn’t comment on the alleged threat made before the shooting and said he can’t discuss the evidence due to the pending state investigation.
McLindon expressed confidence that Landry’s office will conduct a “thorough” review of the case.
“But I think the end result will be the same: There was no criminal conduct,” he said.
Police arrested nearly 200 protesters in Baton Rouge in July following Sterling’s death, which occurred a day before another black man was killed by police in Minnesota.
Racial tensions in Baton Rouge were simmering when a black military veteran from Missouri ambushed and killed three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers and wounded three others before being shot dead on July 17.
A disagreement appeared to be developing about who’s in charge of investigating whether state criminal charges should be filed. Landry, a Republican, said he’s directed the Justice Department to forward its investigative materials to the Louisiana State Police. However, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who oversees the state police, said the investigation is in Landry’s hands. And the head of the state police sent a letter to Landry saying the state police will help Landry’s office if the attorney general decides further evidence collection is necessary.
Edwards said it was disrespectful that Sterling’s family learned the outcome of the Justice Department investigation from the media on Tuesday.
Edwards said the leaked information also jeopardized carefully-devised public safety plans prepared for the announcement.
The decision in the Sterling case was the highest profile decision not to bring charges against police officers in a deadly shooting since Jeff Sessions became attorney general. But the federal investigation into possible civil rights violations by the officers was seen as problematic. Authorities in such cases must meet a difficult standard of proof, a challenge that has complicated prosecutions in past police shootings.
Both officers remain on administrative leave, a standard procedure.