Huerta family pushes for more SBI investigating

jwise@newsobserver.comJanuary 21, 2014 

  • Huerta funeral fund

    El Centro Hispano has started a fund to help the Huerta family with funeral expenses. Tax-deductible donations, marked FOR HUERTA FAMILY, may be made in person or by mail at El Centro Hispano: 600 E. Main St., Durham, NC 27701, or through El Centro Hispano’s website: elcentronc.org.

    Events this week

    • The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham will hold a community luncheon roundtable with “an open discussion of peacemaking in Durham” from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday at Shepherds House United Methodist Church, 107 N. Driver St., Durham. Lunch will be provided. All are welcome. For information, call Marcia Owen, 919-358-1113.

    • Durham County Library will host “Violence in Durham: What Can We Do?” a two-part series for adults and adolescents, beginning at noon Saturday, at the Main Library, 300 N. Roxboro St. The forum will focus on gun safety, gun violence and suicide prevention. The second program, at 3 p.m. Sunday, features Simon Partner, author of “Bull City Survivor: Standing Up to a Hard Life in a Southern City,” which explores gun violence in Durham.

    • The Pinhook, 117 W. Main St., is hosting a benefit concert/dance party for the Huerta family at 8:30 p.m. Friday. Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba and Posifaction are performing, with all proceeds from their show going to the family. See on.fb.me/1hg9cYs.

— The family of Jesus Huerta, the Durham teen who died in police custody, has sent evidence to the State Bureau of Investigation on an “additional investigative area” it wants explored.

Attorney Alex Charns said Tuesday that the evidence was sent directly to the SBI, after hearing nothing from the bureau about the offer it made through the media last week to meet with the family.

He declined to describe the “additional investigative area” but said the evidence was given to the Durham County district attorney’s office last week.

District Attorney Leon Stanback said Tuesday that he “was aware the attorney for the family ... had something he wanted (the SBI) to look into,” but said he has not asked the SBI to resume the investigation it completed Jan. 2. Stanback found no probable cause in the SBI report to press criminal charges in Huerta’s death.

Huerta, 17, died in the back seat of a Durham police car Nov. 19, while his hands were cuffed behind his back. Police have said he shot himself with a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun that the arresting officer missed in a “cursory” frisk.

Family members have remained skeptical, and Charns said it’s “significant” that the state medical examiner’s report does not say the gunshot was “self-inflicted.”

According to the autopsy (which can be seen at bit.ly/1kV5clQ), Huerta died of a “single close range gunshot wound.” The bullet went through a fold in the front of Huerta’s jacket before striking him on the left side of his lower lip. It traveled on through his head and, according to police, was found lodged in the patrol car’s roof near the partition between the front and rear seats.

A preliminary report on the police department’s internal investigation said Officer Samuel Duncan, who arrested Huerta on an outstanding trespassing warrant, thoroughly searched his car before going on patrol and found no weapons or other “contraband.” No one was in the back seat during Duncan’s shift before Huerta.

Similar cases

The claim that Huerta shot himself with his hands cuffed behind his back has been hard for some to fathom, but at least three similar cases have occurred in the past eight years:

•  In September 2006, Houston, Texas, Officer Rodney Johnson was fatally shot by a suspect who pulled a gun from his waistband while handcuffed in the back seat of Johnson’s patrol car. According to The Associated Press, Johnson “apparently missed the gun when he patted down” the suspect, Juan Leonardo Quintero-Perez. Quintero-Perez was convicted of capital murder and sentenced in 2008 to life in prison.

•  In December 2012, a 17-year-old student apparently wounded himself with a gunshot to the head while handcuffed in the back of a police car in the Houston suburb of Galena Park. Officers took the student, whose name has not been released, into custody for his own protection after he sent a text message to a friend saying he intended to hurt himself. Officers conducted a “pat-down frisk” but failed to find a gun, according to a county constable’s spokesman.

•  In July 2012, authorities in Jonesboro, Ark., concluded that suspect Chavis Carter fatally shot himself while sitting in the back of a patrol car with his hands cuffed behind his back. Police officers said they searched Carter twice without finding a gun. Carter’s mother, Teresa Rudd, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Jonesboro, and a federal judge set a trial date during the week of Dec. 1.

Police video

Jonesboro police videotaped four officers of different sizes, ages and sexes demonstrating how a person might pull a gun and shoot himself while sitting in the back of a patrol car with his hands cuffed behind his back. A condensed version of the video is posted at bit.ly/1anE1M3.

Jonesboro Police Chief Michael Yates said Tuesday that his officers reconstructed “what we think transpired” as part of its own investigation to find how difficult it would be for a handcuffed person in a back seat to pull a gun and commit suicide.

“It turned out to be very easy,” he said.

In the video, an officer is shown being handcuffed and entering the back seat of a police car. He has no apparent difficulty pulling a large handgun from his rear waistband and moving his hands, cuffed, far enough around and up to his right to point the gun at his temple.

The Jonesboro case generated widespread news coverage, and skepticism, but Yates said that, aside from the civil action, the controversies have been settled.

“Once all the facts and circumstances came out, most reasonable people understood the situation,” Yates said. “And having three independent witnesses standing there (when the shooting happened) didn’t hurt.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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