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Monday, August 20, 2012

Chavis Carter's Police Custody Suicide

     On Saturday night, July 28, 2012, in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a town of 67,000 in the central part of the state, a home owner in a residential neighborhood called 911 to report a suspicious pickup truck driving up and down the street with its lights off. At 9:50 PM, police officers Keith Baggett and Ron Marsh pulled the truck over. When the driver of the vehicle, 21-year-old Chavis Carter and his two passengers alighted from the truck, the officers patted them down for weapons. The frisks suggested that the suspects were unarmed, but officers found, on Carter's person, a small amount of marijuana. The cops placed him, unrestrained, in the back of the patrol car while they questioned his associates. At this point the police learned that Carter had not given them his real name. When they radioed in for possible outstanding warrants, they discovered that Carter, from Mississippi, was wanted in his home state in connection with a drug case.

     The officers brought Carter out of the patrol car, placed him under arrest, searched him again, then handcuffed him behind his back. After finding an electronic scale in his pickup, they returned him to the back seat of the patrol car. The officers released his friends who drove off in the truck.

     A few minutes later, when a Jonesboro officer checked on Carter, he found him covered in blood and slumped over in the backseat of the police car. Someone called for an ambulance while an officer tried but failed, because of the position of the body, to remove the handcuffs. Later that night, Chavis Carter died from a bullet to his temple.

     In the backseat of the patrol car, officers found a stolen .380-caliber Cobra semi-automatic handgun, and a spent cartridge. The compact pistol was less than six inches long, and was light in weight. Witnesses at the scene said they did not see any of the officers pull their guns. Police video tapes of the arrest also exonerated the officers of any wrongdoing. The two officers were placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation of Carter's death. At this point in the case, all of the preliminary evidence pointed to a suicide.

     Members of the Chavis Carter's family, and the local chapter of the NAACP, called for an independent investigation of the shooting death. The decedent's mother, Teresa Carter, told a reporter that "My son was not suicidal." Russell Marlin, a Memphis lawyer retained by the family, said he was conducting his own investigation into the death. "There is no reason to believe," he said,  "that he [Carter] would have killed himself." (By the same token, there is no reason to believe that a police officer would shoot a handcuffed man in the backseat of a patrol car with his own gun.)

     On August 14, 2012, the Jonesboro Police Department released a video of their re-enactment of the suicide. An officer of Carter's stature--5 foot 8 and 160 pounds--was able, while handcuffed behind his back, to lift the pistol to his head and pull the trigger.

     Jonesboro Chief of Police, Michael Yates, in speaking to the media on the question of how a man frisked and searched still had access to a handgun, said: "It's obvious they did miss the weapon on the first search. It is likely, since he [Carter] was placed into the [patrol] car un-handcuffed the first time, that he had an opportunity to stash the weapon in the car. The second search, which was more thorough and inclusive, did not disclose the weapon."

     Due to the unusual circumstances surrounding Chavis Carter's death, and the fact he was black and the officers were white, this case was racially charged. That meant civil rights activists continued to accuse the police of murder. It is true that had the police recovered Carter's stolen handgun pursuant to the initial frisk, he would be alive. But this was a long way from murder, or even negligent homicide. In the final analysis, it was Chavis Carter who pulled the trigger that ended his life.

     On Monday, August 20, 2012, a panel of three medical examiners officially ruled the manner of Carter's death a suicide. A report from the Arkansas State Crime Lab revealed that at the time of his death, Carter was under the influence of methamphetamine, anti-anxiety medicine, and other drugs.

     In March 2017, a local judge dismissed the lawsuit that had been filed by Chavis Carter's family against the Jonesboro Police Department. 

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