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Girlfriend of handcuffed suicide victim says he had a gun

August 24, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

New details have emerged in the strange case of Chavis Carter, the 21-year-old man Arkansas police say committed suicide by shooting himself in the head while handcuffed in a police car. But along with those details come new questions and, from critics, increased skepticism.

Carter’s girlfriend told an investigator that Carter had called her from the car and said he had a gun. Investigators in Jonesboro, Ark., detailed the woman's account, without identifying her, in a four-page statement about Carter's July 28 death, which was ruled a suicide in an autopsy report released this week.

But a lawyer representing Carter’s family is questioning the reliability of the statement and other information released by police. Carter was black and the two officers white, and some community activists are wondering whether the officers' actions were racially motivated.

Jonesboro police have said officers searched Carter twice during a traffic stop and held him on an outstanding warrant without finding a gun.

Here’s what police are now saying, based on evidence they have gathered, statements from Carter’s girlfriend, officers and witnesses:

Phone records show Carter made two calls, at least one of them from the back of the patrol car.

Carter's girlfriend said that when Carter called from the back of the police car, he said he was scared.

A man told police he sent a text message to Carter asking him to bring him a gun shortly before Carter was stopped. The man also said Carter was involved with a drug deal involving 113 grams of marijuana. Officers found marijuana on Carter when they searched him, and Carter’s body tested positive for methamphetamine, marijuana and an anti-anxiety drug.

Blood spatter on Carter's right hand showed it was close to the gunshot wound on his right temple. Officers and bystanders said the patrol car doors and windows were closed and that the officers weren't near the car until after Carter was found shot.

"This virtually eliminates any possibility that the fatal wound was caused by any weapon other than the one recovered in the rear of the vehicle and that its discharge was caused by Carter," the police statement said.

Jonesboro police requested gunshot residue testing on Carter, but it wasn't done because the Arkansas State Crime Lab doesn't perform the test on victims of gunshot homicides or suicides, Deputy Director Dr. Stephen Erickson told the Los Angeles Times.

The lab's policy was laid out in a memo sent to law enforcement in 2001 that explained how the test can show a gun was fired, but not by whom. Erickson noted that “the test can be misinterpreted.”

For instance, in Carter’s case, he said, the test would be complicated by the fact that “the environment in the back of a police vehicle is highly likely to be contaminated with gunshot residue.”

Erickson said a study of suicide victims at the crime lab found half had tested negative for gunshot residue, even though other evidence showed they shot themselves.

But Benjamin Irwin, the lawyer representing Carter's family, questioned why the test wasn't performed on Carter and the police who stopped him. At the very least, he said, a lack of residue could help establish who didn’t fire the gun.

“Why would you not conduct a gun residue test if for no other reason than to show the integrity of the police force?” Irwin told The Times.

Irwin said he spoke with Carter’s girlfriend Thursday and that he thinks police interviews with her and other witnesses -- as well as the information investigators have released thus far -- are misleading.

He said the woman told him Carter mentioned that he was going to jail, that he didn’t want to miss out on having a family (she is pregnant) and asked her to write to him. The girlfriend said that Carter did not sound suicidal, Irwin said.

The lawyer questioned gaps in evidence police retrieved from the scene of the shooting, including the officers’ dashboard-mounted camera videos and audio recordings. The footage, which police have released, does not show the shooting or when officers allegedly found Carter’s body in the back of the patrol car.

Police have said there were problems with the audio and video equipment. Irwin was skeptical.

“To say it malfunctioned at the most critical moment that night is doubtful. It raises concern along with other things,” Irwin said. “Why is this so quick to be determined a suicide? We want a full investigation.”

Irwin, who works in the Memphis office of Johnnie Cochran’s Atlanta-based law firm, the Cochran Firm, said the Carter family would like to see the FBI or Justice Department conduct an independent investigation of the shooting.

On Wednesday, Carter's mother, Teresa Carter, marched with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other supporters from the shooting site to the Jonesboro justice complex. Jackson called the case "Houdini justice," according to KAIT8 television in Jonesboro.

"We are convinced the explanations given so far are not credible ones," he told reporters before the march.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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