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Monday, September 22, 2014

The Victor White Case: Suicide or Fatal Police Shooting?

     Victor White III grew up as part of a large family (8 siblings) in Alexandria, Louisiana. He played the drums and sang in the choir of the local Baptist Church where his father served as pastor. In late 2013 White moved two hours south of Alexandria to New Iberia where the 22-year-old had a job at a Waffle House restaurant. According to his girlfriend he was saving money so he could afford an apartment for himself, her, and their one-year-old son.

     On his day off, March 2, 2014, White and his friend Isaiah Lewis walked to the Hop-In gas station and convenience store to buy cigarillos. While they were in the store a fight broke out in the parking lot. Someone called 911.

     A deputy with the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office, in responding to the 911 public disturbance call, spotted White and Lewis walking along the street about six blocks from the scene of the fight, a melee  involving young black men. Since Victor White and his friend were black, the deputy sheriff pulled over and confronted them.

     The officer, pursuant to the street inquiry, patted down White to determine if he were armed. In so doing, the deputy felt a bag in White's pocket that contained marijuana. At this point the officer placed White under arrest, handcuffed him behind his back, and issued him his Miranda rights. A more thorough body search incident to the arrest produced, on White's person, a container of cocaine. The officer placed the arrested man into the back of the police car and drove to the sheriff's office.

     At the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office, according to the police version of what happened, Victor White refused to exit the vehicle. The deputy summoned help. A short time later the officers heard a gun go off from inside the patrol car. Deputies found White slumped over in the back seat.

     Shortly after being rushed to a nearby hospital Victor White died from the single bullet wound. Following this shooting death of a handcuffed man in police custody, the Iberia County sheriff called in the Louisiana State Police to conduct an investigation of the incident.

     According to early news accounts of the case, Victor White had committed suicide by shooting himself in the back with a gun the deputy sheriff had missed in his stop and frisk and in his full body search.

     In August 2014, Iberia County Coroner Carl Ditch provided the White family with a copy of the autopsy report. The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy determined that the fatal bullet had entered the right side of White's chest, perforated his lung and heart, then exited near his left armpit.

     According to the autopsy report, the entrance wound was not surrounded by gunpowder stains usually found in cases of close range shots associated with self-inflicted shootings. The forensic pathologist noted abrasions around White's left eye. According to the toxicology report, the dead man had alcohol and marijuana in his system.

     In a news release Coroner Carl Ditch announced the manner of Victor White's death as suicide. The coroner said he had reached this conclusion after "every other manner of death in the case was ruled out." Obviously aware that questions would be raised regarding how, under the circumstances of this case, White could have shot himself in the chest, the coroner noted that because of the dead man's physique, he would have been able to manipulate the gun to a position consistent with the entrance wound. The forensic pathology did not explain what it was about Victor White's body that allowed him to pull off that feat.

     In early September 2014, a spokesperson with the Louisiana State Police said the results of that agency's investigation had been turned over to the Iberia Parish District Attorney's Office. When reporters asked District Attorney Phil Haney if he had determined not to charge anyone in connection with White's death, the prosecutor replied that he would withhold making that decision until the FBI completed its inquiry into the shooting.

     The White family is not satisfied with the coroner's manner of death ruling. Moreover, there is deep distrust of the state police investigation. The family has added attorney Benjamin Crump of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown fame to the family's legal team. 

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