By Elaine Magliaro
Here’s an interesting story about a young black man who was shot while in police custody earlier this year. Twenty-two-year-old Victor White III died in a Louisiana hospital on March 3rd. He was the “victim of a gunshot that police said White fired after being frisked twice, handcuffed and placed in the back of a New Iberia police cruiser.” According to a police press release on the day of White’s death, the young man shot himself in the back. A coroner’s report that was released months later, however, contradicted the police statement. The coroner said that White had been shot in the chest. That would be a difficult thing to do if your hands were cuffed behind your back…don’t you think?
But according to the full final report of the Iberia Parish coroner, which was released nearly six months later and obtained exclusively by NBC News, White was shot in the front, not the back. The bullet entered his right chest and exited under his left armpit. White was left-handed, according to family members. According to the report, the forensic pathologist found gunshot residue in the wound, but not the sort of stippling that a close-range shot can sometimes produce. He also found abrasions on White’s face.
Andy Cush (Gawker) reported that after spending the night hanging out with friends, White and Isaiah Lewis were stopped by police “on the way back from buying cigars at a local gas station. Police reportedly found a small amount of pot on White during a pat-down. The police “then ran the two men’s names through a database and called for backup.” Cush said that a “second search yielded a small amount of cocaine, and White was arrested and placed into an Iberia Parrish police cruiser, where he allegedly produced a .25 caliber semi-automatic handgun and shot himself in the right side of the chest.”
The story and the new coroner’s report raise several questions about the incident. One friend said White joked about having a gun earlier that night, but no one is on record as having seen one. If he did have a gun, why didn’t police find it during one of the two searches? How was he able to reach around and shoot himself in the chest with his hands cuffed behind his back? (The coroner’s report said it was possible due to White’s “body habitus.”) Why did police initially claim he shot himself in the back? Why didn’t the coroner find the gunpowder stippling common to close-range shots on White’s wound? White had a laceration on his face at the time of his death that Lewis said wasn’t there the last time two men saw each other, before White got into the cruiser. Where did it come from?
NBC said that despite the contradictions–“and even though White’s hands were never tested for gunpowder residue – the Iberia Parish coroner still supported the central contention of the initial police statement issued back in March. Dr. Carl Ditch ruled that White shot himself, and declared his death a suicide.” In a press release, Dr. Ditch “said that based on the findings of the pathologist and investigators, it was possible for White ‘due to his body habitus’ to manipulate the gun to shoot himself in the chest.”
White’s father was incredulous. Rev. Victor White II, a Baptist minister and former substance abuse counselor, said, “You can’t make me understand. You can’t make me understand how my son took his left hand, when he was handcuffed behind the back, and shot himself. I don’t believe a thing they’re saying at this point.”
Eliott C. McLaughlin of CNN said that Victor’s White’s case “has drawn national scrutiny because the details of the alleged suicide are so curious.” Carol Powell-Lexing, an attorney for the White family, said that the investigation contains “an avalanche of discrepancies.” She said that the finding that White committed suicide was “preposterous.” She added, “Short of him being Houdini or David Copperfield, it’s not possible.”
Benjamin Crump, a high-profile civil rights attorney, has joined the White family’s legal team. During a press conference earlier this month, Crump said that White’s death was “reminiscent of 21-year-old Chavis Carter’s 2012 death in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Jesus Huerta’s 2013 death in Durham, North Carolina, both of whom allegedly shot themselves while handcuffed in police cars.” Crump added, “We have a terrible recent trend that is occurring across states lines … that finds these Houdini handcuff suicides while they’re in the custody of police that defies all logic, all common sense.”
CNN reported that both FBI and Justice Department lawyers are reviewing the state investigation. U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley said that they “will determine what additional investigation, if any, is necessary to determine who fired the fatal shot.” She said their investigation will “supplement rather than supplant” the state investigation.