of a police cruiser with hands cuffed behind his back.
The State Crime Laboratory in Arkansas has ruled that Chavis Carter committed suicide while handcuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser in Jonesboro the night of July 29. The report, however, shows only that the 21-year-old Carter died of a contact gunshot wound to the right temple. It does not prove who pulled the trigger. The medical examiners did not test for gunshot residue on Carter’s hands to determine if he had actually fired the .380-caliber handgun police say was used in the slaying.
The police have not released any ballistics or other reports that might shed further light on the case one way or the other.
The crime lab report states that toxicology tests found of traces of marijuana, amphetamines, methamphetamines and painkillers in Carter’s bloodstream.
Carter was riding with two other men when they were stopped by a patrolman. In a subsequent search, a small amount of marijuana was discovered along with an electronic scale. All three men were then patted down. No pistol was found. After it was learned that there was an outstanding warrant on Carter for probation violation in Mississippi on a charge of selling marijuana, he was searched again without a pistol turning up, handcuffed and placed in the back of the cruiser. The other two men, one of them 17 years old, were allowed to leave.
Shortly afterward, the officers said they heard a metallic pop. But it wasn’t until they sniffed what they took to be burned gunpowder that they checked on Carter. He was slumped over, covered in blood, with a wound to his head. He was still breathing then, but was pronounced dead at the hospital. Police said they found the pistol and an expended cartridge in the back seat. They reported the shooting as death by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The claims of suicide-while-handcuffed raised eyebrows and voices from coast to coast and didn’t go down well in Jonesboro either. Race is part of the equation. Carter was black, the two men who were released were white, the two officers on the scene are white, and the Jonesboro police department and the police chief do not have the best reputation in the black community. A key reason: Only three of the force’s 149 members are African American even though 12 percent of Jonesboro’s population is. The police chief, who left the post of chief of police in Americus, Georgia, under a cloud tainted with accusations of racism, has resisted calls to diversify the department.
Last week, as I reported here, the police department released a video of an unidentified, handcuffed officer twisting himself into a position to place the muzzle of a pistol against his temple. Whether Carter was flexible enough to do the same doesn’t explain why he would do so.
Also unanswered are questions raised by Dr. Michael Baden, the former chief medical examiner for the City of New York renowned for his expert testimony in the O.J. Simpson trial, hosting of an HBO show, Autopsy, and appearances as Forensic Science Contributor for Fox News. Baden told Joy-Ann Reid that the way police claim Carter show himself “would be possible, I think, but it’s still very unlikely that that would happen.” In terms of answering what did happen, Baden said:
“[The cops] should examine whether there is blood and gunshot residue on the roof of the car, the back seat, etc., because blood spatters and smoke and residue would land on the roof, the back of the seat and on [Carter's] hands,” Baden said, adding that such an examination “would permit reconstruction of how the hands were positioned at the time of discharge” of the firearm.
It’s unknown whether those tests were undertaken in Jonesboro. Or whether the officers’ hands were tested for gunshot residue. Daily Kos phone calls were forwarded to a public relations voice mail and not returned.
Even if Carter did kill himself, Baden said:
“[...] the police still have entire responsibility for it because when they take someone into custody, they’re responsible for his health and welfare,” Baden said. “If he dies in their custody they’re responsible. At the least, we’re talking about very sloppy police work — not finding a gun that he could have used to shoot one of the officers — and it’s indicative of poor training of the officers.”
The two officers involved the night of shooting are on administrative leave.