Durham chief: Teen shot self in head while in police car
Posted December 11, 2013
Durham, N.C. — Durham's police chief says that Jesus Huerta, the 17-year-old who died in police custody last month, shot himself in the head after he had been searched, handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car.
"I know that it is hard for people not in law enforcement to understand how someone could be capable of shooting themselves while handcuffed behind the back," Chief Jose Lopez told reporters Wednesday. "While incidents like this are not common, they unfortunately have happened in other jurisdictions in the past."
Lopez said that Officer Samuel Duncan picked up Huerta early on Nov. 19 in response to a call about a runaway and learned that he had a warrant out for his arrest on a second-degree trespassing charge.
By 2 a.m., according to police, Huerta was dead – his hands still cuffed behind him, slumped over in the back seat of the car outside the Durham Police Department – and a handgun was found in the floorboard of the patrol car.
An autopsy confirmed the self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Huerta's sister, Evelin Huerta, says Lopez's explanation is difficult for her to understand and that her brother did not have a gun.
"I’m just more frustrated now," she said. "In what world does any of this make sense?"
It's unclear where the gun came from. Lopez said it was not a departmental gun and that no officer fired the weapon.
If Huerta had the gun when he was taken into custody, it's unclear why Duncan did not find it when he searched the teen.
"One of my concerns is the nature of the search. Was it a good enough search?" said Durham City Councilman Steve Schewel, who also spoke to reporters Wednesday. "We do need to understand (really well) what happened, and once we understand what happened really well, it all needs to be out there."
An internal police investigation and an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation remain active, Lopez said. Duncan is on administrative leave pending the outcome of those investigations.
"Whether (Huerta's) wound was accidental or intentional is unknown at this time," Lopez said.
Lopez's news conference comes a day after Huerta's family called for a federal investigation into the case, and it is the first time the chief has publicly commented about the events on the morning of Nov. 19.
The family says they called police after Huerta ran away from home and, according to a 911 recording, were worried because he had tried to take his own life. The family later said Huerta never tried to kill himself.
They've since made a public records request for all forms of communication regarding the case, their attorney Alexander Charns said, "in a continuing effort to find out the truth."
"How did Jesus end up dead in the parking lot at police headquarters in these circumstances? Searched. Handcuffed behind the back. How is it even possible to shoot oneself?" Charns said in a statement.
"The chief’s statement is a conclusion exonerating, in part, the DPD, while blaming the one person who can’t speak for himself," he continued. "The chief offers no details to support his claims. We are asked to trust without any way to verify the information."