Recordings conflict with police report on Jesus Huerta’s death

jwise@newsobserver.comJanuary 13, 2014 

  • Vigil honors Jesus Huerta

    A prayer vigil to honor Jesus Huerta’s life is scheduled for 6:45 p.m. Sunday in the main sanctuary of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, 810 West Chapel Hill St., Durham.

    The Franciscan friars of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church will lead the vigil, which is sponsored by the Huerta family, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods, El Centro Hispano, and Durham Congregations In Action.

    Persons of all faiths and ages are welcome. The event does not include a march. For information, call Marcia Owen, 919-358-1113.

— Recordings of police communications the night of teenager Jesus Huerta’s death in police custody appear to conflict with the investigators’ statement that Huerta’s mother’s concern about her son’s mental state had not been communicated to officers on patrol.

The recordings – sent by City Manager Tom Bonfield to Durham City Council members Monday – include an officer’s comment that the 17-year-old Riverside High School student had a drug problem and his mother might have him committed.

A police report released Friday states, however, that while Huerta’s sister told a 911 operator that her brother had attempted to commit suicide, the police dispatcher told officers Huerta “does not have any medical or mental conditions and is not at risk.”

In a police communication recorded at the time of Huerta’s arrest, one officer states that Huerta’s mother “is probably going to do commitment papers for his drug use. She said he’s got a real problem with taking pills and smoking and stuff. He went to a clinic for five days and then kept using.”

Huerta died of what police have said was a self-inflicted gunshot wound while handcuffed in the back seat of a police car Nov. 19. About 2:10 a.m., Huerta’s sister called 911 to ask for police help finding him because he left home after his mother caught him using drugs.

The recordings appear to give substance to claims by the Huerta family and their attorney, Alex Charns, that police failed to adequately protect Jesus Huerta when he was arrested although they knew he was unstable.

Charns has called the police report “a whitewash wrapped in a cover-up and based in denial.”

Charns and Huerta’s family members have disputed police conclusion that Huerta had the .45 caliber handgun that killed him in his possession at the time of his arrest.

Police investigators said Officer Samuel Duncan, who arrested Huerta on an outstanding trespassing warrant, gave Huerta a “cursory” examination before putting him in the car but failed to find the gun. According to police, Duncan had searched the car before going on patrol and found no weapon or other “contraband.”

Police said they also have an ongoing criminal investigation into Huerta’s death, including Duncan’s possible failure to follow several police policies for handling prisoners and running a video camera inside an active patrol car.

The state medical examiner’s report, also released Friday, concluded that Huerta died of a gunshot that traveled up, through the front of a jacket he was wearing, and struck him in the mouth. The bullet went on through his head and lodged in the car roof, near the partition between the front and back seats.

The gun was found on the backseat floorboard, according to the police report, with Huerta slumped over and his hands still cuffed behind his back.

According to Noelle Talley, spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s office, the State Bureau of Investigation has concluded an independent investigation of Huerta’s death and delivered its report to Durham interim District Attorney Leon Stanback.

Stanback has not announced whether he plans to release the report to the public or initiate any action based on it. He said last week that he was waiting on the medical examiner’s report before making any decisions on how or whether to proceed.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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