On July 29 in Jonesboro, Arkansas, 21-year-old Chavis Carter and two companions were pulled over for suspicious driving. Police searched the car and found about ten bucks worth of marijuana, some baggies, some scales, and an as-yet-unidentified white powder. Carter's companions were let go, but Carter was put in the back of a patrol car because he had given cops a fake name and had skipped out on a drug diversion program in Mississippi (he had plead guilty to one count of selling marijuana). Carter was first uncuffed, then cuffed after a second search revealed the aforementioned charges, as well as scales and white powder. Somehow, at some point during that evening, Carter ended up shot in the head while cuffed and apparently left alone long enough to pull out a 380-caliber Cobra semi-automatic from…somewhere. Cops say it was self-inflicted, other people have different ideas.
Obviously, this story has several of the necessary elements for media to pay attention this time. A nicely skeptical CNN report reveals further questions by pointing out that Carter's mother says her son was let handed, but he shot himself in the right temple (cops won't confirm), also that he called his girlfriend when he was getting arrested and said he would call her later, suggesting that suicide over ten bucks worth of weed was not on the man's mind. The Jonesboro chief of police Michael Yates that CNN reporter Randi Caye interviews, near the end of the report won't confirm that investigators (which now include the FBI) have ruled out that Carter was killed by one of the officers on the scene, though the chief says it doesn't seem to be what happened. He also admits that nearby officers' apparent inability to tell what gunfire sounds like (Caye is incredulous while asking this question) is not a good sign. It is also "disappointing" that the officers found the drugs and paraphernalia, but missed a gun.
There were dash cams on both police cruisers present at the scene, but they were parked back to back, therefore the shooting was not captured on video.
Autopsy and other investigations are still pending. In the meantime, the Jonesboro police have made the following video to confirm that yes, it is possible to shoot yourself in the head while cuffed.
That seems to confirm that it is possible, and Gene Lyons, a writer for Illinois' Morris Daily Harald says that this story is not as strange or disturbing as it seems:
Because at second glance, the Sherlock Holmes aspect of Carter's death strikes me as not so mystifying at all. Analysis of text messages on his cellphone appear to indicate that Carter had carried a gun earlier that night. It's common for suspects to ditch contraband in the backs of patrol cars; not uncommon for cheap semi-automatic handguns to discharge accidentally. As tempting a storyline as it makes to suggest otherwise, any reasonably agile young man can do all kinds of seemingly improbable things wearing handcuffs.
Despite the incredulity of journalists like The New York Times columnist Charles Blow regarding Carter's alleged "suicide," the term Jonesboro cops have used is "self-inflicted gunshot wound" — not the same thing. Preliminary investigations aided by dashboard cameras, audio recordings and witness statements indicate that neither officer went anywhere near Carter subsequent to his being placed in the patrol car. That's not to hold them blameless. A proper search should have found the gun.
The department has invited the FBI to conduct a separate probe. At minimum, a painstaking investigation is required to maintain – or, if necessary, to restore – public confidence in the integrity of law enforcement.
It may have just been negligence on the part of law enforcement, though the point that cops are not saying it was suicide seems dubious, considering how clearly deliberate (not fumbling with a cheap gun and trying to hide it) the act is made to look in the above reinactment. Even the chief of police has not denied that that gun should have been found. Nevertheless, no matter how Carter died, finding drugs, but missing a weapon is a neat, sad little microcosm of where law enforcement priorities have been pushed in the last few decades.