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Handcuffed -- but he shot himself in head; ruling spurs outcry

August 20, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

HOUSTON -- Police in Jonesboro, Ark., have drawn scrutiny after a suspect handcuffed in a police car apparently managed to shoot himself in the head.

Jonesboro police stopped Chavis Carter, 21, of Southaven, Miss., on July 28 while he was riding with several other people in Jonesboro, about 130 miles northeast of Little Rock.

Carter was held on an outstanding warrant, frisked, found in possession of a small amount of marijuana, placed in a patrol car and handcuffed, according to police reports.

A short time later, officers noticed Carter slumped in the backseat of the cruiser, covered in blood, according to an autopsy report released Monday. The report found Carter had managed to conceal a handgun, which he used to shoot himself in the right side of the head. He later died at a hospital, and the report listed his death as a suicide.

"Apparently he produced a weapon, and despite being handcuffed, shot himself in the head," the report said.

A toxicology screening included in the report noted that, at the time of his death, Carter had amounts of benzodiazepines (sedatives), amphetamines and cannabinoids in his blood.

The death was still under review by local prosecutors and police Monday. Jonesboro police released a video reenactment showing how Carter could have shot himself in the head with his hands cuffed behind his back.

Dr. Stephen Erickson, a forensic pathologist from the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, signed off on the autopsy report and told the Los Angeles Times that the police department’s video reenactment makes sense.

“Of course, when we got the case, that was our first question — could he do this with his hands behind his back?” Erickson said. “The police department answered all those questions in their investigation.”

Erickson said the gunshot, which he was told came from a .380, wounded Carter on the right side of the head near his ear, exiting the left side, and could have been fired by Carter twisting his hands around behind him.

“Getting your left hand over far enough would be difficult, but your right hand is attached to it, so you get a little more flexibility,” Erickson said. “The human body is very flexible, very plastic.”

The autopsy findings were announced days after police released video recorded the night Carter was shot. The video showed him being patted down but ended before officers found Carter slumped over in the back of the patrol car. Police later released additional video recorded after Carter's body was found.

The two officers at the scene when Carter was shot were placed on administrative leave pending the investigation, officials said. Some protesters have called for more accountability from police, rejected the suicide finding and the department’s video reenactment.

"That’s a cold-blooded calculated lie," said Dr. Isaac Richmond, national director of the Memphis-based Commission on Religion and Racism, calling suicide "incredibly impossible under those conditions."

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Richmond noted that Carter was left-handed and would have had to reach around his back to shoot himself in the right side of his head.

Richmond's group has organized a protest march Tuesday from the site of the shooting to Jonesboro's City Council meeting, where protesters plan to demand that the officers involved in the shooting face charges and that the police chief resign.

Richmond said he doubts the department will hold itself accountable. He said protesters have also met with U.S. Department of Justice officials, filed federal complaints and plan to file more in Washington this month.

“We’re going to put the system on trial” in Jonesboro, he said.

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