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Soldier acquitted in hit-and-run death said he feared retaliation during time of high racial tensions

Protesters rally in Dallas on July 7, 2016, in the aftermath of the killing of Alton Sterling by police officers in Baton Rouge, La. A Louisiana National Guardsman on Nov. 13, 2018, was acquitted of charges in a hit-and-run death. The soldier claimed he feared retaliation as racial tensions were high following Sterling's death.

SMILEY N. POOL/DALLAS MORNING NEWS/TNS

By CAROLINE GRUESKIN | The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. | Published: November 24, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. (Tribune News Service) — A Livingston Parish jury acquitted a Baton Rouge man charged in the 2016 death of a motorcyclist after the man told jurors that protests following the fatal shooting of a black man's fatal shooting by police led him to believe a group of black bikers meant to do him harm.

Prosecutors said Dylan David ran Jessie Gross off Interstate 12 in a fit of road rage Oct. 16, 2016, and a grand jury later accused David of negligent homicide and hit-and run. The Baton Rouge area was suffering through a period of racial tension in the weeks after Alton Sterling's death, and some animosity was also directed toward police. David's lawyer said last week that political correctness "might have had a role" in the grand jurors charging a white man in a black man's death.

David, 28, told jurors he believed black motorcyclists were harassing him over a pro-police sticker on his truck and changed lanes to avoid them. The surviving bikers said they were trying to get around David, who was driving below the posted 70 mph speed limit in the westbound left lane of I-12, according to the prosecutor.

"Mr. David felt because the Alton Sterling incident had happened about seven to eight weeks before, ... that was a reason he was being harassed," attorney Sherman Mack said in an interview this week. Sterling, 37, was an armed black man shot by a Baton Rouge police officer in July 2016. 

Gross, 44, of Ponchatoula died following the crash. An all-white jury acquitted David, of Baton Rouge, on both counts Nov. 13 after deliberating 20 minutes. Twenty-first Judicial District Judge Brenda Ricks presided over the trial.

Livingston Parish Assistant District Attorney Jeff Hand said two surviving bikers claimed David drove at Gross, forcing him off the road, and fled the scene. Although no evidence showed David actually struck Gross' motorcycle, the law allows for a hit-and-run that does not involve contact, Hand said.

Gross and the others were riding their motorcycles from Ponchatoula to Baton Rouge, as they did every Sunday, and were trying to maneuver around David as he drove below the speed limit, Hand said. The prosecutor called the episode "a clear act of road rage."

David, who is a member of the Louisiana Army National Guard, said in an interview Wednesday that he was driving home to Baton Rouge from drill practice in Robert. He was wearing a military uniform and had a "Back the Blue" sticker on this truck.

David said the bikers, whom he encountered around Hammond, harassed him by driving at inconsistent speeds -- speeding up when he did, and slowing down when he did, while they were in the other lane. At one point, he claims, one of the bikers fished around in a saddle bag and pointed what appeared to be a gun at him.

He said the experience was more frightening than when he faced mortar shells in Afghanistan.

"In all of those instances,  I never felt like my life was actually in danger. But on Oct. 16, 2016, I surely did. I was convinced that if I did not do something, then I would either be seriously injured or potentially killed," David said.

David wore his military dress uniform during the trial. He told jurors he changed lanes after the perceived firearm threat and exited the interstate at Satsuma, unaware that there had been a third motorcyclist or that the biker left the roadway and suffered injuries that ultimately took his life.

A biker followed David off the highway and took a picture of his license plate, which is how Louisiana State Police tracked him down.

Mack said his conversations with jurors led him to believe they were most persuaded by inconsistencies in the testimony of the prosecution's witnesses. David said he believed three witnesses testifying for the prosecution gave vastly differing versions of events.

Hand said he did not discuss the verdict with the jurors. But he said it was "absolutely not" true that the two bikers David was referring to would have harassed him over connections to the military or police, and there was never evidence one of them had a gun. One of the bikers served overseas and earned three Bronze Stars, while another worked for five years as a military police officer on a base in Georgia, Hand said.

Hand said there was "clearly a racial element" to the trial.

Mack said he was glad the trial ended as it did, because he believes David is innocent.

The victim's widow, Laketha Gross, said in an interview Tuesday that she feels like she was treated unfairly. She said the jurors appeared to favor Mack because he is a state representative, and David was cast in a very positive light.

She said her husband was a truck driver, and they cared for seven children between them. Laketha Gross said that on the evening of the crash, they had planned to go to dinner together at Copeland's in Covington, as they did each Sunday evening.

"I was with Jessie 25 years and married 19 years," Laketha Gross said. But she said the jurors looked at David and his wife "like they're this perfect family and he wanted to adopt children, and he's in the military."

She criticized the Alton Sterling-related defense as "garbage."

(c)2018 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.
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