Suicide ruling doesn't end questions in Arkansas case
Memphis, Tenn. • Hours after police released an autopsy report that ruled the shooting death of a young man in the back of a patrol car a suicide, dozens of the man's supporters and relatives gathered Monday night in Memphis for a candlelight vigil.
The report from the Arkansas state crime lab says Chavis Carter, 21, tested positive for methamphetamine, anti-anxiety medication and other drugs. It ruled his death a suicide and says the muzzle of a handgun he apparently concealed from arresting officers was placed against his right temple when it was fired.
Instead of focusing on the newly released report, some supporters at the vigil were asking more questions.
"How (did) he shoot himself in his right temple and he (was) left-handed? In handcuffs?" one of his friends, Bianca Tipton, asked.
The state crime lab report, released to The Associated Press and other news organizations under a public records request, didn't answer that question.
Instead, the report says Carter's death was ruled a suicide based on autopsy findings and investigative conclusions from the Jonesboro Police Department, which has faced questions from Carter's family and community members about the circumstances surrounding the July 28 death.
"He was cuffed and placed into a police car, where apparently he produced a weapon, and despite being handcuffed, shot himself in the head," the report says.
The report also says Carter's blood tested positive for at least trace amounts of the anti-anxiety medication diazepam and the painkiller oxycodone. His urine test returned a positive result for marijuana.
Benjamin Irwin, a Memphis-based lawyer representing Carter's family, declined to comment Monday afternoon on the specifics of the toxicology report, calling instead for police to release details of any gunpowder residue or other such tests.
"If those tests were taken ... what were the results?" Irwin asked.
On Monday night dozens of Carter family supporters gathered outside the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., for a candlelight vigil.
Carter's mother, Teresa Carter, wiped her eyes as people spoke about her late son.
"My heart is so heavy," she said.
She didn't talk about the autopsy results as she addressed the small crowd, but others did. One man read part of the autopsy report as he stood at the podium and some continued to demand answers about how Carter died.
Police have said officers frisked Carter twice after a traffic stop without finding a gun, but the department's internal investigation continues. The FBI also is monitoring the case, and the local branch of the NAACP has called for a thorough investigation into the death of Carter, who was black. Two other men who were in a truck with him during the stop and the two officers who were on the scene are white, according to police.
The autopsy report comes days after police released dashboard camera video recorded the night Carter was shot in Jonesboro, about 130 miles northeast of Little Rock. Part of the video shows Carter being patted down and ends before officers found Carter slumped over and bleeding in the back of a patrol car, as was described in a police report. Police later released additional video they said was recorded after Carter was found.
Neither included the moment they say Carter shot himself, and the footage did little to resolve questions about how the shooting could have happened. Jonesboro police previously had released a video reconstruction of the shooting showing how a man could shoot himself in the head with his hands cuffed behind him.
In producing that video, the agency said it used the same type of handcuffs used on Carter and the same model of handgun found near him after he was shot: a .380-caliber Cobra semi-automatic. An officer of similar height and weight as Carter sat in the back of a cruiser, leaned over and was able to lift the weapon to his head and reach the trigger.
The autopsy report says Carter was about 5-foot-8 and that his body weighed 150 pounds.
Irwin called Monday for the full dashboard video and audio from the night of the shooting to be released before final conclusions are drawn.
"They should be disclosing every bit of evidence as quickly as they can," he said.
Cellphone videos, other phone records, search warrant returns and investigative portions of the incident report had yet to be released, police spokesman Sgt. Lyle Waterworth said.
"As the investigation continues and as prudent further information will be released," Waterworth said in an email. "Any other questions will be answered upon completion of investigation."
Carter's death came after police stopped a truck in which he was a passenger. The driver and another passenger eventually were allowed to go, but police said Carter had an outstanding arrest warrant. Court records show it had to do with a drug charge out of Mississippi's DeSoto County.
Carter was searched twice, and police said they found a small amount of marijuana but no gun. After the first search, an officer put Carter into a patrol car without handcuffing him. He was later searched again, handcuffed and returned to the same car.
"It's obvious they did miss the weapon on the first search. It is likely, since he was placed into the car un-handcuffed the first time, that he had an opportunity to stash the weapon in the car," Jonesboro Police Chief Michael Yates said last week. "The second search, which was more thorough and inclusive, did not disclose the weapon either."
Officers a short time later saw Carter slumped over in the backseat and covered in blood with his hands still cuffed, according to the police report, which concluded he had managed to conceal the handgun with which he shot himself. He later died at a hospital.