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Cop Car Death Ruled Suicide, But Doubts Remain


I'm Viviana Hurtado and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, a deadly shooting outside a South African mine shocked the nation, but is it changing the conversation around violence there? We'll find out in a few minutes.

But, first, we turn to the death of 21-year-old Chavis Carter. He died of a gunshot wound in an Arkansas police car after he was pulled over. That was in late July. Now, the autopsy report released Monday lists his death as a suicide, but Carter's family and activists are saying the story just doesn't add up. Jesse Jackson was reportedly joined last night by hundreds of supporters at a rally.

JESSE JACKSON, SR.: Unless one really believes in Houdini, for real, you try putting your left hand behind your back, hitting yourself in the right temple.

HURTADO: For more on this case, we're joined now by Jeannie Nuss. She's covering the story as the Associated Press reporter based in Little Rock, Arkansas. Welcome to the program, Jeannie.

JEANNIE NUSS: Thanks very much.

HURTADO: The Jonesboro Police Department has released some information about this case. What are they saying happened the night Chavis Carter died?

NUSS: Well, initially, police said that Chavis Carter shot himself in the head with a gun he somehow concealed in the back of a police car. Then, the police started an investigation into what happened as questions began to arise about how someone who's handcuffed behind his back could shoot himself in the head. An autopsy released this week ruled his death as a suicide and police have been releasing more information that they say backs up that conclusion. But Chavis' family hasn't accepted that so far.

HURTADO: What are the major questions this case is raising?

NUSS: The main question that's cropped up is how someone whose hands are cuffed behind his back could bring a gun to his right temple and, while his family says he's left-handed, shoot himself in the head? One of the other main questions that's come up is how he got the gun in the first place. Police said they searched him twice, patted him down initially, put him in the back of a patrol car and then they later took him out, searched him again, handcuffed him and put him back in the car.

Police, in information they released Wednesday, had said that he likely stashed the gun in the back of the car the first time he was searched and that the officer missed the gun. But it's still been a major question, along with how he could have shot himself.

HURTADO: Tell us a little bit about Chavis Carter. Who was he and why was he arrested?

NUSS: Well, his family describe Chavis as a really good kid. He was getting ready to go to a college in Central Arkansas in the fall. He wanted to be a vet someday. After graduating high school, he knocked some general courses out of the way and he was staying with friends up in Jonesboro, Arkansas, which is in the northeast part of the state. He liked shopping for sneakers and playing basketball and, by all accounts in the family, he was a good kid.

He did have a run-in with the law down in Mississippi.

HURTADO: And that's what I was just going to ask you, if you can talk to us about his criminal record.

NUSS: Absolutely. So, in Mississippi, he had pleaded guilty to a drug charge, but the court agreed to hold off on accepting that plea for three years, as long as he completed drug testing and a bunch of other conditions. The prosecutors came back and said he didn't follow up on the conditions, so they asked for a bench warrant for his arrest and that's when the truck that Chavis was in the night that he was arrested - when the truck was pulled over, they held him on that arrest warrant.

HURTADO: The Reverend Jesse Jackson met with Carter's family and he held a rally last night in Memphis. What is the Reverend Jackson and the Chavis family calling for?

NUSS: Jesse Jackson had asked the Department of Justice to get involved in the investigation. The FBI has already said it's monitoring the case, but Jesse Jackson has said, as has the family, that the explanations that have been given so far aren't enough and they want more answers.

HURTADO: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. We're talking about the death of Chavis Carter in an Arkansas police car. Authorities ruled it a suicide, but his family and activists say that doesn't make sense. For more on the case, I'm talking to Jeannie Nuss of the Associated Press.

Police have also released interview tape from witnesses in the case. Here is Jamie Anderson, who lives near the site of the incident.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The car where, the guy in the car that they had detained - was the doors open or closed?

JAMIE ANDERSON: They were open.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When you heard the pop, the doors were open on the police car?

ANDERSON: No, no. That police car wasn't - door wasn't open. The other one had the open...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The one that the guy was in the backseat...

ANDERSON: The one he had in the backseat weren't open.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They were closed?

ANDERSON: Yes, sir.

HURTADO: So, Jeannie, what do these witnesses add to the case? What are the questions about these accounts and how is this squaring with the investigation?

NUSS: Well, there were initial questions about whether he was able to shoot himself since he was handcuffed. And so, in an effort to sort of rule out any sort of officer involvement, the police released those witness statements and video footage from that night in hopes of showing that the officers weren't nearby the car enough to be involved.

HURTADO: The police released a reenactment video, as well. It was an attempt to show how someone in handcuffs could lift a gun to his head. Can you tell us what the response has been?

NUSS: Well, the lawyers for Chavis' family have really criticized that video, basically calling it a - it seems like a publicity stunt more than anything, just to try to show how that could happen and they didn't find it plausible, that the handcuffs seemed loose.

One supporter said they must have had yoga instructors film the video because it seemed implausible to him that you would be able to reach behind your back and pull your hands up to your temple.

HURTADO: And, Jeannie, this also - releasing the reenactment video, they've also released portions, I guess, of information that was on Chavis's cell phone. How do those things - this release of information by the police department - what does it say and how is it being received by the public?

NUSS: Police just recently released some information about his cell phone records. They haven't released it all and they said they're not going to until their investigation is complete. But, for now, the most interesting part of the recent release - they're saying that Chavis' girlfriend told an investigator that Chavis called her from the back of the patrol car, told her that he loved her, that he had a gun with him and that he was scared. Police haven't released that recording, as far as we're aware, but they released an investigative summary yesterday, including that and a couple other details about his cell phone records.

HURTADO: How much does race factor into this story?

NUSS: Well, questions about race have certainly cropped up. Chavis was black. The officers involved in the traffic stop that night were white, as were the driver in the truck that Carter was riding in and the other passenger. So - and, as Jesse Jackson came yesterday and was meeting with the family, you know, he mentioned the Trayvon Martin case and Emmett Till and a few others, so race is - questions about race have definitely been asked.

HURTADO: Jeannie, there are echoes of the Trayvon Martin case. Certainly, the family and some activists would say so. This case is different, though. Do you think Chavis Carter's case will or has potential to escalate to the national stage the way the Trayvon Martin case did?

NUSS: I think it certainly does. The lawyers representing Chavis's family have said, you know, he was in police custody at the time when the shooting occurred. So whether it was a suicide, as the police and autopsy suggest or whether something else happened, it seems to have the potential for legal action down the road.

HURTADO: Jeannie Nuss is a reporter with the Associated Press. She was kind enough to join us from Little Rock, Arkansas. Thank you, Jeannie.

NUSS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.