La. deputy's death complicated; shooting was "accidental"
STEVEN WARD; RIVER PARISHES BUREAU
Deputy's death a tragedy for two families
A tragedy occurred March 1 on Georgette Street just south of Napoleonville near the boundary between Assumption and Lafourche parishes.
During a drug investigation in the neighborhood, a 31-year-old Assumption Parish sheriff's deputy was shot in the chest just above his bulletproof vest, according to accounts from the Sheriff's Office.
That deputy - Sgt. Jeremy Newchurch - died at Assumption Community Hospital.
Why did it happen?
That's the question friends and relatives of Newchurch, members of the Sheriff's Office and the community of Assumption have been asking since that Wednesday night.
The only thing anyone really seems to know is that the fatal shooting probably was accidental. An accidental shooting doesn't mean that someone is not responsible for Newchurch's death.
District Attorney Tony Falterman of the 23rd Judicial District obtained an indictment of 22-year-old Byron Meads of Labadieville on one count of manslaughter.
That indictment represents the state's charge against the man prosecutors believe is responsible for Newchurch's death.
Assumption Parish Sheriff Mike Waguespack has said that Newchurch and another deputy - Sgt. Byron Parker - were working a drug investigation when they saw a car parked illegally. The two deputies, Waguespack said, started walking toward the car.
Nobody knows why, but the driver of that car, reportedly Meads, put his foot on the accelerator as the deputies approached and drove in reverse down Georgette Street until the car ran into a ditch. Waguespack said that Newchurch and Parker started to walk toward the wrecked car to help the man behind the wheel.
The information that Waguespack released in March describes a struggle between Parker and Meads and alleges that Meads tried to get the deputy's drawn handgun. The gun went off during the struggle, firing a bullet that struck and fatally wounded Newchurch, Waguespack said.
A grand jury indicted Meads on a charge of manslaughter, and all seemed to be routine after that, or at least as routine as any homicide investigation or case could be at that point. Then the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People got involved.
Area NAACP chapters called two news conferences - the first to say that Meads was beaten by Assumption deputies during his arrest and that Meads is innocent of killing Newchurch. The NAACP officials also said it was Parker, not Meads, who shot and killed Newchurch.
The second news conference was the platform used by NAACP officials to release an audio tape to the media - a tape made while State Police detectives interviewed Parker right after the shooting. The tape, the NAACP officials indicated, supposedly was going to prove that Meads is innocent and Parker pulled the trigger.
Once reporters for The Advocate listened to the leaked tape, the only thing that became clear is that Parker told detectives that the shooting was accidental. Parker also told detectives that Meads had touched his drawn gun and that Parker was sure Meads was trying to take the deputy's gun away from him.
Falterman and Waguespack refused to talk about the news conferences or the accusations the NAACP made. They said they prefer to wait until the trial starts, the appropriate time and place, they said, where the facts of the case will come out.
Setting aside the NAACP and its news conferences for a moment, one has only to read the state's manslaughter law to find out why prosecutors are putting Meads on trial for that charge.
According to the law, manslaughter is committed when a homicide occurs "without any intent to cause death or great bodily harm."
The law also states that manslaughter is applicable when "the offender is resisting lawful arrest by means, or in a manner, not inherently dangerous."
So according to the law Meads is charged with violating, it doesn't matter whether Meads had any intent to harm Newchurch. And it doesn't matter who pulled the trigger.
The NAACP's accusations of police brutality are a different matter. There has been no information about allegations except the allegations themselves and photographs of Meads' face reportedly taken the day after his arrest. Those pictures show purple and red bruises under Meads' eyes.
The NAACP has written a letter to the FBI asking for an investigation by that agency to determine whether Meads' civil rights have been violated. The FBI has not yet decided whether to get involved.
In the meantime, the families of Newchurch and Meads continue to be victims of the tragedy of March 1.
Steven Ward is a reporter with The Advocate's River Parishes bureau.
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