The Jonesboro Police Department has released new details in the case of Chavis Carter, the 21-year-old black man whose shooting death in the backseat of a police cruiser caused a media firestorm in the small Arkansas town.
The story as first reported — that Carter shot himself in the head despite being handcuffed — was met with derision and scorn from an African American community that distrusted the Jonesboro Police Department and saw this incident as a potential cover-up of law enforcement killing a young black man.
Last week, Jonesboro Police took the extraordinary step of releasing a flurry of documents and a long narrative of their yet-unfinished investigation into the incident. Both the initial police report (PDF) and the autopsy conclude that Chavis killed himself. To some extent this is an embarrassment to the force, as they admit that the officers missed a .380 caliber handgun during their search of Chavis Carter.
The narrative (PDF) goes into minute details of the circumstances surrounding the traffic stop-turned-suicide, including a technical explanation for glitches in the dashboard cameras of the two police cars that arrived on scene for the traffic stop. The police also did a recreation of the event as they presume it happened — Officers Keith Baggett and Ron Marsh were not near the car when the shooting took place — to show that a handcuffed man could fish out a gun and shoot himself in the temple.
Investigators found a treasure-trove of information stemming from an examination of Carter’s phone A cellphone video (shot by Carter) of three men smoking marijuana led police to track down an unidentified juvenile who told police that Carter said he had a .380 pistol. Brandon Baker, an adult also featured on the Carter phone video admitted that he had sent Carter a text message on the night of the incident requesting that Carter bring him the gun. Other text messages detailed an impending drug sale of 4 ounces of marijuana from Carter to Baker.
The most important evidence in support of the official story is the disclosure that detectives had interviewed Chavis Carter’s girlfriend, who told police that Carter called her from inside the police car to tell her that he loved her and that he was scared. Moreover he mentioned that he had a gun on him, even as he sat in the rear of the squad car.
The report gave fresh insight into the chronology of the traffic stop and how Carter secreted the gun into the police car. After Officer Marsh found the baggie of marijuana on Carter, Marsh put Carter into the cruiser uncuffed while he further investigated. At that point, Marsh had no way of knowing if this would be a minor drug citation or something more serious. When word came over the radio that Carter had an outstanding warrant and would have to be taken into custody, Marsh took Carter out of the car and gave him a thorough pat-down. Police presume that Carter hid his pistol in the backseat before he was taken back out for the second search.
One issue that arose out of the autopsy (see below) was the question of why Carter’s hands had not been tested for gunshot residue — which would have provided strong evidence that he shot the gun himself. As it turns out, Arkansas State Crime Lab policy (PDF) states that GSR tests are not to be performed in cases of suicides, because GSR tests in suicides only produce positive results half the time which “may cause confusion and may lead some to the erroneous conclusion that the victim was murdered.”
The Jonesboro authorities say the investigation is still on-going, so there may yet be more revelations to come. The release of evidence at this point shows that the department keenly felt pressure from media entities that have filed several FOI requests and questions from the Chavis family, who have already retained the Cochran Firm in anticipation of a potential lawsuit. The Police statement concludes by deeming the situation a “tragic incident which is no doubt heart-breaking for the family and the officers involved as well.”