Will recusal of Baton Rouge DA lead to fairer investigation in Sterling case?

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore announced he would recuse himself from investigations into conduct of the officers who shot Alton Sterling. Both the parents of one officer are also police – and they have interacted extensively with Moore.  

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Veda Washington, aunt of police shooting victim Alton Sterling, walks past the site of Sterling's death, the Triple S convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, July 11, 2016.

Following the shooting death of Alton Sterling at the hands of two Baton Rouge police officers, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore has recused himself from overseeing the investigation. Mr. Moore said he has a close working relationship with the parents of one of the officers, who are both officers themselves. 

The recusal sheds light on how extensive the contact between prosecutors and local police often is, and how these connections – necessary to the function of local justice – can make unbiased investigations into officer conduct more difficult.  

As DA, Moore has worked closely with both parents of Officer Blaine Salamoni, according to a report from his office. Mr. Salamoni's mother has worked on more than 400 homicide investigations with Moore since 2009 as the Violent Crime and Crime Scene Commander. Salamoni's father leads the police department's special operations unit, and he has provided and overseen 24-hour security for the DA, his family, and his staff.  

Moore has no direct connection to either officer, and, if only direct connections were considered, he could likely continue his role as the lead prosecutor, according to the report. But his connection to Salamoni's parents has lead to the recusal, although he stressed this decision would not serve as precedent for future investigations into officer violations of criminal laws. 

The close ties between local law enforcement and local prosecutors leads to structural challenges in investigating police shootings, Caren Myers Morrison, a former federal prosecutor who is a law professor at Georgia State University, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. 

"If you anger the police they can make life very difficult for you," Ms. Morrison said. "There’s a lot that local prosecutors need from the police and vice-versa. So having a broken-down relationship between the police department and the prosecutor’s office would lead to the office coming to a standstill possibly."

The shooting deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014 and the subsequent non-indictments contributed to a decline in the public's trust in the judicial system to fairly investigate officer-involved shootings, as current San Jose, Calif., independent police auditor Walter Katz wrote for the Harvard Law Review. 

A 2014 YouGov poll found that only 37 percent of Americans, and a mere 19 percent of black Americans, trusted the justice system to "properly investigate situations where a police officer kills someone." 

Local prosecutors often show bias toward officers, Katz writes. Prosecutors depend on the police to help provide evidence to help them get future convictions. They are also hesitant to prosecute officers who break the law, as doing so lowers the credibility of the police, potentially hurting future cases.  

The lack of prosecution against officers fuels the public perception that the local judicial system favors officers, which can be traced to the community's belief in "a cycle of impunity, by which the reluctance of local government to prosecute bad cops empowers future misconduct and drives communities to regard the police as adversaries instead of protectors," Professor John Jacobi wrote for the Wisconsin Law Review in 2000. 

Katz proposes that state legislatures move the responsibility of investigating police-involved shootings to independent reviewers to prevent the prosecutorial bias. These independent investigations have been implemented in a handful of countries, including the UK, Britain, and Norway, he wrote. 

Moore's decision to recuse himself will re-direct the investigation into Sterling's case to the state's attorney general, who will appoint either a member of his staff of another DA to lead the investigation. 

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