by CHARLES M. BLOW
Let me get this straight: A young man is stopped by police, who find $10 worth of drugs on him; he had twice been searched by officers and then double handcuffed behind his back and placed in the back of a police car; yet, somehow, he retrieves a gun that both searches failed to find and uses it shoot himself in the right temple?
That is what police in Jonesboro, Ark., say happened on the evening of Sunday, July 29, to Chavis Carter, a 21-year-old African-American man from Southaven, Miss., a suburb of Memphis. They say he committed suicide with a hidden gun while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. According to a local CBS News report, his mother was told that he shot himself in the right temple, but she claims that Chavis was left-handed.
The strange circumstances of this case, which even the Jonesboro police chief, Michael Yates, called “bizarre” and said “defies logic at first glance,” have raised questions that sorely need answering.
First, some background on how Carter came into contact with police that Sunday night.
According to a statement released Friday by the Jonesboro Police Department, Chavis was a passenger in a “suspicious vehicle” mentioned in a 911 call because it was “observed driving down the street with its lights off” at 9:50 p.m. Three people were in the vehicle: the driver, Carter and another passenger.
According to the statement, Carter, who originally gave a false name — Laryan Bowman — was “ ‘frisked’ or ‘patted down,’ not necessarily a full search at this point” because the officers on the scene “did not know what they had nor if any arrests were to be made.” During that first search, “a small amount of marijuana and some small plastic bags commonly used to package drugs were discovered in Carter’s pocket.” According to the police report, the estimated value of it was $10.
The police then determined that Carter “had an active warrant out of Mississippi.” According to The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, a warrant had been issued for Carter’s arrest after he violated his probation. He had pleaded guilty in 2011 to one count of selling marijuana.
He was placed in the back of one of the police cars on the scene without being handcuffed.
The other two people in the car “had no drugs and no active warrants,” so they were released.
Carter was then taken out of the police car, at which point officers “cuffed him behind his back and searched his person again” and placed him back into the police car.
Then things get strange. According to the police statement:
“As the officers then returned to their vehicles to leave, the second officer entered his vehicle and noted the smell of something burning (gun smoke we believe) and noticed Carter slumped over on the passenger side of the police unit. The officer then opened the rear door and noticed Carter unresponsive with a quantity of blood on him. At this point, he ran to the other officer to prevent him from leaving and both officers returned to the second unit, opened both doors and began to attempt to assist Carter (who was still handcuffed behind his back) and summoned an ambulance. The ambulance arrived and transported Carter to the hospital where he died a short time later.”
The statement continues:
“Investigators were called to the scene and began processing the evidence, photographing and securing evidence. A small .380 caliber cobra semi-auto firearm was discovered, as well as an expended case, and a projectile (which was recovered in the rear of the vehicle).”
(The police say that the handgun had been reported stolen from a Jonesboro resident in June.)
Police say that they have interviewed “a number of witnesses” to the incident and that their “statements are consistent with the statements of the officers and the evidence reflected by the dash-cam video of the responding officer, along with audio evidence from the backup officer.”
According to the police, “the statements and video/audio evidence account for the officers’ actions from the beginning of the stop until the arrival of the ambulance and indicate that neither officer removed his weapon, fired a shot or was in a position to enter the vehicle where Carter was detained in a manner that would allow for them to injure Carter.”
Furthermore, “the windows on the patrol unit where Carter was detained were up and intact, indicating no possibility of a bullet penetrating from the outside of the patrol unit while Carter was detained.” Yet, “specifically, how Carter suffered his apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound remains unexplained.”
That is the question, isn’t it? How do police officers search a man twice and find a small amount of marijuana but miss a handgun? And how does that man, who had been handcuffed, use that gun to shoot himself in the head?
The F.B.I. is now monitoring the investigation while a nation waits for answers and wonders about a “suicide” that “defies logic.”
(A version of this op-ed appeared in print on August 4, 2012, on page A17 of the New York edition with the headline: The Curious Case of Chavis Carter.)
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”