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Governor saw disturbing Ronald Greene video months before prosecutors

1 year 3 months 4 weeks ago Friday, May 27 2022 May 27, 2022 May 27, 2022 10:00 AM May 27, 2022 in News
Source: Associated Press

BATON ROUGE (AP) — With racial tensions still simmering over the killing of George Floyd, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and his top lawyers gathered in a state police conference room in October 2020 to prepare for the fallout from a troubling case closer to home: troopers’ deadly arrest of Ronald Greene.

There, they privately watched a crucial body-camera video of the Black motorist’s violent arrest that showed a bruised and bloody Greene going limp and drawing his final breaths — footage that prosecutors, detectives and medical examiners wouldn’t even know existed for another six months.

While the Democratic governor has distanced himself from allegations of a cover-up in the explosive case by contending evidence was promptly turned over to authorities, an Associated Press investigation based on interviews and records found that wasn’t the case with the 30-minute video he watched. Neither Edwards, his staff nor the state police he oversees acted urgently to get the crucial footage into the hands of those with the power to charge the white troopers seen stunning, punching and dragging Greene.

That video, which showed critical moments and audio absent from other footage that was turned over, wouldn’t reach prosecutors until nearly two years after Greene’s May 10, 2019, death on a rural roadside near Monroe. Now three years have passed, and after lengthy, ongoing federal and state probes, still no one has been criminally charged.

“The optics are horrible for the governor. It makes him culpable in this, in delaying justice,” said Rafael Goyeneche, a former prosecutor who is president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a New Orleans-based watchdog group.

“All it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing,” Goyeneche added. “And that’s what the governor did, nothing.”

What the governor knew, when he knew it and what he did about an in-custody death that troopers initially blamed on a car crash have become questions that have dogged his administration for months. Edwards and his staff are expected to be called within weeks to testify under oath before a bipartisan legislative committee probing the case and a possible cover-up.

Edwards’ attorneys say there was no way for the governor to have known at the time that the video he watched had not already been turned over to prosecutors, and there was no effort to by the governor or his staff to withhold evidence.

Regardless, the governor’s attorneys didn’t mention seeing the video in a meeting just days later with state prosecutors, who wouldn’t receive the footage until a detective discovered it almost by accident six months later. While U.S. Justice Department officials refused to comment, the head of the state police, Col. Lamar Davis, told the AP that his records show that the video was turned over to federal authorities about the same time, mid-April 2021.

Edwards, a lawyer from a long line of Louisiana sheriffs, did not make himself available for an interview. But his chief counsel, Matthew Block, acknowledged to the AP that it was not acceptable for evidence to be available to the governor and not the officials investigating the case. The governor’s staff also stressed that state police, not Edwards’ office, actually possessed the video.

“I can’t go back and fix what was done,” Block said. “Everybody would agree that if there would have been some understanding that the district attorney did not have a piece of evidence, whether it was a video or whatever it might be, then, of course, the district attorney should have all the evidence in the case. Of course.”

At issue is the 30-minute body-camera footage from Lt. John Clary, the highest-ranking trooper to respond to Greene’s arrest. It is one of two videos of the incident, and captured events not seen on the 46-minute clip from Trooper Dakota DeMoss that shows troopers swarming Greene’s car after a high-speed chase, repeatedly jolting him with stun guns, beating him in the head and dragging him by his ankle shackles. Throughout the frantic scene, Greene is barely resisting, pleading for mercy and wailing, “I’m your brother! I’m scared! I’m scared!”

But Clary’s video is perhaps even more significant to the investigations because it is the only footage that shows the moment a handcuffed, bloody Greene moans under the weight of two troopers, twitches and then goes still. It also shows troopers ordering the heavyset, 49-year-old to remain face down on the ground with his hands and feet restrained for more than nine minutes — a tactic use-of-force experts criticized as dangerous and likely to have restricted his breathing.

And unlike the DeMoss video, which goes silent halfway through when the microphone is turned off, Clary’s video has sound throughout, picking up a trooper ordering Greene to “lay on your f------ belly like I told you to!” and a sheriff’s deputy taunting, “Yeah, yeah, that s--- hurts, doesn’t it?”

The state police’s own use-of-force expert highlighted the importance of the Clary footage during testimony in which he characterized the troopers’ actions as “torture and murder.”

“They’re pressing on his back at one point and Ronald Greene’s foot starts kicking up,” Sgt. Scott Davis told lawmakers in March. “The same thing happened in the George Floyd trial. There was a pulmonologist who said that’s the moment of his death. The same thing happened with Ronald Greene.”

Clary’s video reached state police internal affairs officers more than a year after Greene’s death when they opened a probe and later showed it to the governor. But it was long unknown to detectives working the criminal case and missing from the initial investigative case file they turned over to prosecutors in August 2019. Its absence has become a focal point in the federal probe, which is looking not only at the actions of the troopers but whether state police brass obstructed justice to protect them.

Detectives say Clary falsely claimed he didn’t have any body-camera footage of his own from Greene’s arrest and instead gave investigators a thumb drive of other troopers’ videos.

State police say Clary properly uploaded his body-camera footage to an online evidence storage system and the then-head of the agency, Col. Kevin Reeves, defended his administration’s handling of the Greene case.

“I don’t think that there was any cover-up by state police of this matter,” Reeves, who has described Greene’s death as “awful but lawful,” said in recent legislative testimony.

But the detectives investigating Greene’s death say they were locked out of the video storage system at the time and had to rely on Clary to provide the footage.

Albert Paxton, the now-retired lead detective on the Greene case, said he didn’t learn the video existed until April 2021 when Davis, who had broad access to body-camera video as the agency’s use-of-force expert, made a passing reference to it in a conversation.

An internal affairs investigation into whether Clary purposely withheld the footage was inconclusive and details of the probe remain secret. Clary, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, avoided discipline and remains in the state police.

In early October 2020, days after AP published audio of Trooper Chris Hollingsworth bragging that he had “beat the ever-living f--- out of” Greene, Edwards and his top attorneys Block and Tina Vanichchagorn went to a state police building in Baton Rouge and watched videos of the arrest, including the Clary video, the governor’s office said.

Days later, the governor’s lawyers flew with Reeves and other police brass 200 miles north to Ruston to discuss the videos with John Belton, the Union Parish district attorney leading the state investigation.

The Oct. 13 meeting was intended to plan a closed-door event the next day in which Greene’s family would meet the governor and view footage of the arrest. Although the meeting was about showing video of the arrest, it never emerged that the governor’s lawyers and police commanders were all aware of the Clary footage while prosecutors were in the dark.

“It didn’t come up at all,” Belton said, adding he only knew at the time of the DeMoss video.

Block agreed, saying, “We didn’t go through what happened on the videos.”

That agreement falls apart over what happened the next day.

Greene’s family says it was not shown the Clary video after meeting Edwards on Oct. 14, a claim Belton and several others who attended the viewing in Baton Rouge affirmed. State police and the governor’s office, however, disputed that, saying the Clary video was in fact shown.

But state police spokesman Capt. Nick Manale acknowledged, “The department has no proof of what was shown to the family that day.”

Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Greene family, recalled the response he received when they asked if there was a Clary video: “We were told it was of no evidentiary value.”

“The fact is we never saw it,” added Mona Hardin, Greene’s mother. “They’ve tried to have total control of the narrative.”

Throughout this process, Edwards had considered making the Greene arrest videos public, records show, but decided against it at the request of federal prosecutors. After they were withheld from the public more than two years, the AP obtained and published both the DeMoss and Clary videos in May 2021.

An AP investigation that followed found Greene’s was among at least a dozen cases over the past decade in which state police troopers or their bosses ignored or concealed evidence of beatings, deflected blame and impeded efforts to root out misconduct. Dozens of current and former troopers said the beatings were countenanced by a culture of impunity, nepotism and, in some cases, outright racism.

Edwards was informed of Greene’s deadly arrest within hours, when he received a text message from Reeves telling him that troopers engaged in a “violent, lengthy struggle” with a Black motorist, ending in his death. But the governor, who was in the midst of a tight reelection race at the time, kept quiet about the case publicly for two years as police continued to push the narrative that Greene died in a crash.

Edwards has said he first learned of the “serious allegations” surrounding Greene’s death in September 2020, months after Greene’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit and the FBI sent a sweeping subpoena for evidence to state police.

After the videos were published, the governor broke his silence and called the troopers’ actions criminal. In recent months, as his role in the Greene case has come under scrutiny, Edwards has gone further to describe them as racist while denying he’s interfered with or delayed investigations.

The governor’s lawyers now acknowledge prosecutors did not have the Clary video until spring of 2021. But Edwards insisted as recently as February that evidence turned over to prosecutors prior to his November 2019 re-election was proof there was no cover-up.

“The facts are clear that the evidence of what happened that night was presented to prosecutors well before my election, state and federal prosecutors,” Edwards said in a news conference.

“So obviously that is not part of a cover-up.”

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