Via reader Marcus Ranum I read about this extraordinary case where a medical examiner arrives at a cause of death of a person in police custody that seems to go directly counter to the facts of the case.
A coroner’s report obtained exclusively by NBC News directly contradicts the police version of how a 22-year-old black man died in the back seat of a Louisiana police cruiser earlier this year — but still says the man, whose hands were cuffed behind his back, shot himself.
In a press release issued March 3, the day he died, the Louisiana State Police said Victor White III apparently shot himself in an Iberia Parish police car. According to the police statement, White had his hands cuffed behind his back when he shot himself in the back.
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.
And yet, 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 issued Monday, 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.
Due to the pending investigation, records normally considered public are not available. The State Police will not yet release dash cam footage, or the number of or names of any officers present during White’s death. They will not give any timeframe as to when they expect the investigation to conclude.
I doubt that even Houdini could have pulled off the feat of shooting himself from the front while having his hands cuffed behind his back.
I hope that the recent controversies over police brutality will trigger new ways to increase transparency since that seems to be the only way to get at the truth and hold people accountable. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras and the ease of dissemination is one step in that direction but more is needed.
Most police cars now have dash cams to record events at police stops. There are also moves for police to have body-mounted cameras so that there is a visual record of all their interactions with the public. Introduction of them in one jurisdiction resulted in a 60% reduction of the use of force by police. If the video is sent straight to the cloud and stored there, that would reduce the chance of losing the video because the camera was destroyed ‘by accident’ after a controversial event.