Coroner Rules Death Of Handcuffed Man Was A Suicide

A corner has ruled the death of a handcuffed man in the back of a Jonesboro, AR police cruiser was a suicide. Needless to say, questions remain.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the case of Chavis Carter, the 21yo Arkansas resident who mysteriously died of a gunshot wound to the head while sitting alone and handcuffed with his hands behind his back in the back seat of a Jonesboro, AR patrol car. Yesterday, the Jonesboro corner released his final report and ruled Carter’s death to have been a suicide:

(CBS) JONESBORO, Ark. – An Arkansas medical examiner has ruled that Chavis Carter, the 21-year-old man killed by a gunshot wound to the head while handcuffed in the back of a police car, committed suicide.

Toxicology findings show Carter tested positive for methamphetamine, anti-anxiety medication and other drugs.

According to the report by Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Stephen A. Erickson of the Arkansas State Crime Lab, the bullet that killed Carter entered his skull near his right temple, four inches from the top of his head.

“At the time of discharge, the muzzle of the gun was placed against the right temporal scalp,” wrote Erickson.

He went on to state that, “The manner of death is based on both autopsy findings and the investigative conclusions of the Jonesboro Police Department.”

The autopsy report released Monday included a drug analysis showing Carter hadn’t been drinking the night of the July 28 shooting but his urine and blood indicated methamphetamine use. The report says Carter’s blood also tested positive for at least trace amounts of the anti-anxiety medication diazepam and the painkiller oxycodone. His urine test also returned a positive result for marijuana.

I’m not a medical doctor so I’m not going to comment on whether or not the presence of drugs in Carter’s system makes it more or less likely that he might have been put into a suicidal state of mind merely by being arrested. However, it’s worth noting that at least two of these drugs are prescription drugs that Carter may have had a legal prescription for (of course, oxycodone is also a drug that is frequently sold illegally.) The point, though, is that I’m not sure we can draw any conclusion at all from the fact that Carter was on drugs. The real questions, as I noted in my original post, is (1) if Carter had a gun, how did the police miss it after frisking him twice? and (2) how, exactly, does a person who is handcuffed with his hands behind his back, and his left handed, shoot himself in the right side of his head?

As to that last question, Jonesboro police released an odd little video last week trying to explain that:

Last week, Jonesboro police released video of a police officer approximately the same size as Carter reenacting what may have happened the back of the police car on the night of July 28, when Carter and two other men were pulled over in a traffic stop. Police searched Carter twice but have said they did not find a gun.

The reenactment video shows the officer being cuffed, then sitting in the back seat, retrieving a fake gun from his pants, and bringing the barrel to his right temple. The video also shows still photographs of other officers handcuffed in the backseat of a car, with the fake gun pressed to their temple.

Here’s that video, judge for yourself:

The autopsy report doesn’t answer the first question, which strikes me as perhaps even more important than the second. Perhaps it’s possible that Carter would be able to perform the manuevers in the video, but it’s the atypical person who would be able to do so with enough dexterity to be able to fire a weapon with his non-favored hand. As the Associated Press notes, the report raises more questions than it answers:

Hours after police released an autopsy report that ruled the shooting death of a young man in the back of a patrol car was 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.

(…)

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.

The gunpowder tests would indeed be interesting to see. If Carter had gunpowder residue on his right hand indicative of that which would be left if he had fired the weapon, then this might suggest that he did indeed commit suicide as improbable as the story may seem. For what it’s worth, I’ve run this past a friend in law enforcement who says that it’s certainly possible that someone could manipulate a gun in handcuffs like Carter was so it’s not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that the police are telling the truth here. However, given the oddities in the case — the two frisks that found $10 worth of marijuana but failed to find a gun, the fact that Carter was left handed but shot in the right side of his head, and the fact that his family has said that he’d never displayed any suicidal tendencies — there’s certainly reason to be suspicious. And, yes, the racial aspect of the story is another thing to take into consideration.

This case deserves more investigation. It also deserves more attention that it’s getting and, perhaps, FBI involvement. At least to answer the legitimate questions out there and resolve the grief of Carter’s family as best as can be done.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. george says:

    Perhaps the argument is that letting yourself be put into the back of a police cruiser in Jonesboro is a form of suicide? Sort of in the same category as tugging on Superman’s cap, or pulling the mask of the masked Lone Ranger?

    Maybe it was suicide, but that definitely needs more investigation.

  2. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Well, let’s not be completely naive. Even if the paraffin test shows that this guy did in fact fire a gun held in his right hand, and despite the rather obvious point that murderous cops presumably could not be dumb enough to have written in their own official report that he still was handcuffed in the rear seat at the time of the fatal shot, there’s little to no chance the media will drop its agenda and consider the matter closed. In this particular case the cops already are guilty of being white cops.

    That all said, however, if there’s no gunpowder residue on this dude’s right hand then, yeah, of course, the obvious conclusion is there was foul play.

  3. Barry says:

    “The gunpowder tests would indeed be interesting to see.”

    I’ll doubt anything that this coroner’s office has to say until proven by a disinterested party.

  4. @Barry:

    Fair point

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The gunpowder tests would indeed be interesting to see. If Carter had gunpowder residue on his right hand indicative of that which would be left if he had fired the weapon, then this might suggest that he did indeed commit suicide as improbable as the story may seem.

    Hmmmm…. What I want to know, is did they do gunpowder tests on the 2 cops? If not, why not?

  6. John Burgess says:

    I’m left-handed. I shoot primarily with my left hand, but I can also use my right without a huge loss of accuracy at close range, up to 15 feet or so. Since the range here seems to be measured in inches, I don’t think handedness really has much to say about it. There are cases, after all, where triggers on shotguns or rifles were pulled by big toes.

    The GSR should indeed prove the most critical evidence here, though.

  7. JKB says:

    There is obvious information left out of this news report on the coroner’s report. Perhaps it wasn’t made available. Trajectory of the bullet through the skull to name one. Also, the investigative findings such as position of the gun, etc. would inform the determination. I will say, I certainly wouldn’t have thought the maneuver shown in the video possible but it apparently is.

    I don’t know about Arkansas but an investigation into an in custody death would be shadowed by the state Bureau of Investigation in Tennessee, or conducted by them for small departments. So while the investigation is being conducted by the local police department, I wouldn’t assume they aren’t being monitored.

    As for the news report going on and on about the reported drugs in his system. That seems a lot of what happens when some reporter is given a coroner’s report to write a story on. Not a lot there so the leap to such facts. I once saw a news report on an autopsy report regarding a person shot by a police officer. The writer apparently thought they had a scoop when they reported on a line by itself that the death had been ruled a homicide. Of course, in this instance, everyone already knew it was a homicide as there was no doubt the death had been caused by another human. A ruling of homicide by the coroner means just that, a death caused by oneself or another. It indicates nothing regarding justification or illegality of the death.

  8. Gustopher says:

    The officers and department are almost certainly liable in a civil suit — they missed a handgun during frisking, twice, if their story is to be believed.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there were criminal charges that could be successfully prosecuted, again, even believing their story. Not sure of the laws on negligent homicide, but there is likely some form of criminal negligence that applies.

    In neither instance would I want to face a jury with improbable results from the department coroner, and have the jury try into punish me for shooting someone in cold blood and covering it up badly.

    Why are the Jonesboro cops not begging for FBI involvement at this point? Someone with expertise, and without an obvious motive to cover things up, who can testify in court “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like it, but with the angle of entry… All consistent with self inflicted wounds”, and who might be believed.

    My assumption is they don’t want the FBI anywhere near this because they are guilty as can be, and are going with a story that is transparently false.

  9. Wayne says:

    One should remember most firearms are design for right-handed shooters. Many have the safety only on the left side that would be difficult to flip with the left hand. Many left hand people especially those with some ambidextrous ability end up shooting right-handed because of firearm designs.

    They showed several people able to perform the action. So the fact that a civilian could is not that unlikely.

  10. Carson says:

    I have not heard if the gun was owned by Carter. One witness that I heard said that when the gun went off, the police were not in the car and both doors were closed. They heard the shot and ran to the car. It is still a mystery how a frisk did not pick up the gun.