The news has drawn further scrutiny to the 2017 tragedy that stirred public outrage last year after authorities arrested the dead child’s mother, 21-year-old Brittany Stephens, on suspicion of negligent homicide, saying the baby probably would not have been ejected and killed if Stephens had properly secured the car seat. Authorities have decided not to charge her, East Baton Rouge district attorney Hillar Moore III said.
The choice to prosecute neither Manuel nor Stephens was an agonizing one, Moore told The Washington Post on Friday. But after two years of discussions, he said, prosecutors felt they couldn’t meet the burden of proof for homicide or even a lesser charge like negligent injury for the officer. At the same time, they were loath to go after a young woman whom Moore said has already “punished herself.”
“You never want any officer traveling 94 miles an hour,” he said. “It’s just stupid. It’s dangerous. But when we looked at the law and the facts and the circumstances, we just thought that this was the only reasonable decision to make.”
An attorney for Stephens told The Post he’s troubled by authorities’ handling of the case, though. He has questioned last year’s action against his client, calling it a tactic to muddy responsibility for baby Seyaira’s death. Now, he’s blasting the district attorney for letting the officer off the hook, saying the choice exudes “impropriety” given prosecutors’ close work with police.
“He turned a highway into a raceway,” said the lawyer, Marcus Allen. “Brittany will never see that child again. And now at the end of the day he literally walks away with nothing.”
Hearing the news, he said, Stephens texted him to say she felt hurt and angry.
“I told her, ‘You’re justified,’ ” he recalled.
Moore said he respects the criticism but is adamant that Manuel’s job as a police officer did not sway his decision.
Manuel’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment Friday. The attorney told a local paper, the Advocate, that the no-charge decision was appropriate and that the case belonged in civil court.
Manuel, whom The Post could not immediately reach for comment, remains on the police force, department spokesman L’Jean McKneely confirmed Friday. With the question of criminal charges resolved, he said, the department can move forward with an internal investigation into Manuel’s actions two years ago on Oct. 12.
Arrested after the wreck on suspicion of negligent homicide, Manuel was initially put on paid administrative leave but has since returned to work in a unit that files reports based on phone calls, McKneely said. That option seemed better than Manuel “being at home on taxpayers’ money,” he added.
McKneely referred questions about the crash and investigators’ findings to the district attorney.
Both Manuel and the SUV driver had green lights when the SUV turned left toward a boulevard as the officer’s Corvette headed along Airline Highway, according to an arrest report obtained by the Advocate.
Investigators raised questions about whether the SUV’s driver acted improperly by not yielding. Police also noted safety violations among the SUV’s passengers: Too many people were in the car, and no one was wearing seat belts, they say, as an unlicensed person took the wheel. The district attorney says all those factors complicated decisions around Manuel’s culpability.
Investigators ultimately said Manuel’s speeding made judging the turn impossible, according to the Advocate. The speed limit on Airline Highway is 50 mph.
The wreck left many wounded, according to a civil complaint filed for several people in the SUV. Stephens’s mother, Janice Johnson — a passenger along with her daughter — struggled to speak and needed help with basic self-care after spending three months in the hospital for serious injuries including a crushed lung and broken bones, the lawsuit states.
Three children were also hospitalized, the complaint says, including a 15-year-old who now uses a wheelchair and has been unable to return to school because of brain impairment. The teenager had reportedly accumulated $700,000 in medical costs as of last year.
While no charges related to the wreck will proceed in criminal court, Stephens and other family members injured in the crash are still suing Manuel for damages. Manuel, in turn, has filed his own lawsuit against the SUV’s driver. The officer’s complaint says the other driver caused the collision by turning “without warning” into his lane, leaving him in the hospital with unspecified injuries, according to the Advocate.
Police have pointed to Stephens’s culpability in the death of her daughter, saying she should not have placed an unsecured car seat between two front seats. McKneely told the Advocate last year that the mother “was the person responsible for the buckling of the car seat.”
But Allen, the attorney for Stephens, believes a jury would have been more likely to fault Manuel in the child’s death.
“He’s an off-duty police officer that should know better,” Allen said.
The district attorney should have allowed a court to weigh in, he argued — or at the very least, prosecuted the speeding.
Moore, the district attorney, said prosecutors chose not to pursue a speeding charge against the officer because, under Louisiana law at the time, it could have interfered with their ability to eventually bring a more serious charge of negligent homicide. Allen, however, says he’s not aware of any reason the district attorney couldn’t pursue multiple charges at once.
The window for prosecuting a speeding violation passed last month. If the district attorney had come to a decision on negligent homicide sooner, Moore acknowledged, they could have pursued the other offense. But he maintained that deliberations simply took too long.
“This is a trying decision,” he said. “It weighed on me as a parent with children.”
His office chose not to prosecute safety violations for people in the SUV.