Ronnie Garrett of Baton Rouge attends a rally in support of Ronald Greene’s family and other survivors of police violence at the State Capitol Thursday, May 27, 2021. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator).
The prosecutor for Union Parish told Louisiana lawmakers Thursday he will ask a grand jury to consider state charges against the state troopers involved in the May 2019 death of Black motorist Ronald Greene.
District Attorney John Belton, chief prosecutor for Louisiana’s Third Judicial District, which includes Union and Lincoln parishes, shared the announcement in his opening testimony before a House committee investigating the alleged cover-up that followed Greene’s death.
Belton would not specify what charges he is pursuing but said he is “looking at everything.” He mentioned the possibility of homicide charges and, while fielding questions from lawmakers, did not rule out obstruction of justice.
Belton said Brandon Brown, the new U.S. attorney for Louisiana’s Western District who President Joe Biden appointed in December, gave him clearance last week to pursue charges. Federal prosecutors initially requested Belton wait for the conclusion of their investigation, he said. Belton told lawmakers he informed Greene’s mother, Mona Hardin, of the news last week.
Following a vehicle pursuit, police body camera footage showed Greene had surrendered and was lying on the side of a Union Parish highway before white troopers kicked, dragged, beat and shocked him with stun guns. He later died in custody, yet troopers allegedly told Greene’s family his death was the result of a crash that ended the police chase.
When Louisiana State Police initially showed Belton the video of the Greene incident on Sept. 9, 2019, the prosecutor said he felt “state and federal crimes had been committed” and “immediately took action” that same day by referring the case to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Belton said he did not recuse his office from the case but agreed to wait for the federal investigation to conclude because it could strengthen his case. It was important to have an independent agency conduct the probe because Louisiana State Police was investigating itself, he explained to the committee.
“Notwithstanding the possibility of pursuing homicide charges,” Belton said, “I felt that the federal rights violations would expand the potential for penalties upon conviction as compared to some of the potential state charges.”
Belton said he followed up with Justice officials last year because he was tired of waiting, but federal prosecutors told him their indictment could possibly come in the fall and asked him to wait a little longer. Belton said he agreed.
The indictment never came, but the U.S. Attorney recently returned the case to Belton, offering to assist with resources and share investigative findings the FBI has collected so far.
“I will never, and I repeat, I will never make prosecutorial decisions due to political pressure or public opinion…No one is above the law — no one,” Belton said.
Belton’s announcement was unexpected as lawmakers called on him to testify, at least partly, to explain text messages he exchanged with Gov. John Bel Edwards and governor’s staff members. The committee is looking into allegations that Edwards, supposedly to protect his reelection campaign, intentionally refused to publish the footage of the incident.
Edwards has denied any such motive, citing the ongoing federal investigation as the reason why he offered limited comment in the aftermath of Greene’s death.
Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, asked Belton if he had a letter or any documentation from the U.S. Attorney’s Office substantiating his explanation that federal prosecutors asked him to withhold charges. Belton said he has text messages and offered to show the committee his cellphone.
Rep. Debbie Villio, a former state prosecutor, told her colleagues it is common courtesy for local prosecutors to pause an investigation of state charges at the request of the Department of Justice.
Belton also explained that the governor wanted and had planned to make the footage public but ultimately only showed it to Greene’s family, following a recommendation from the Justice Department. Belton said he knows this because Edwards reached out to him in October 2020 to ask Belton to agree to the video’s release. Belton said he had no problem with it but told the governor he needed to run the idea by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which was conducting the investigation at that time.
Belton said he then called the U.S. Attorney’s Office to relay the governor’s request. It was the federal prosecutors who recommended Edwards show the video only to Greene’s family, Belton said.
“He asked me to contact the federal authorities,” Belton said. “I did and they indicated that they were not comfortable in releasing the video, but that we can show it to the family.”
The only occasions Belton communicated with the governor was to discuss a policy issue regarding the case and to discuss the release of the video to the family, he said.
Belton confirmed other details that have circulated in news reports over the last three years. He said Greene’s initial pathology report from the Union Parish coroner indicated the car wreck as one of several possible causes of death, but late last year both the car wreck and a finding of “agitated delirium” were removed as causes of death following a review by the FBI that uncovered new evidence ruling them out.
State police withheld the “Clary video” from the comprehensive investigative file submitted to Belton’s office, he said. The video is from the body camera of the ranking trooper on the scene, Lt. John Clary, who for two years told internal affairs investigators that the footage did not exist until it finally surfaced in March 2021. Despite this, Louisiana State Police internal affairs cleared Clary of any wrongdoing.
Also, Belton confirmed an account from Oct. 23, 2019, in which then-Louisiana State Police Superintendent Col. Kevin Reeves ran into Belton at a Louisiana Tech event and shared his candid thoughts on the Greene incident as “awful but lawful.” Reeves would retire a year later.
The district attorney’s testimony followed that of Superintendent Col. Lamar Davis, who became head of Louisiana State Police after fallout from the Greene case became widely publicized.
Lawmakers criticized Davis for his handling of the internal investigation into the agency’s second-in-command, Lt. Col. Doug Cain, who came under fire after news surfaced that Cain allegedly impeded internal affairs from investigating the troopers shown in the video beating Greene. Cain and other state police leaders also ordered their agency-issued cellphones “sanitized”, or wiped clean of all data, in the wake of the Greene investigation.
As a result, Cain was placed under internal investigation. Davis has not placed Cain on administrative leave.
Davis said his policy regarding administrative leave is to order it only when the person under investigation might pose harm to the public or himself. Since Cain is an administrator who works at a desk, he poses no such risk, Davis said.
Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, told Davis he should want to avoid the mere appearance of impropriety and should consider how the public might view such decisions.
Other lawmakers echoed similar thoughts and said they’ have heard from troopers who have been unwilling to share information with internal affairs because Cain is still working at the agency.
“I think it’s unreasonable for your No. 2 guy to be under investigation and not be on administrative leave,” Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, said.
Defending his decisions, Davis said he has “stopped reading the newspaper” and blamed the media for reporting inaccuracies. He did not specify what reporting has been incorrect, but he appeared to shift his general stance near the end of his testimony.
“I will be rethinking some things,” he said, adding that there is “no blueprint” for leading the agency through the situation it currently faces.
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