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The questionable death of Chavis Carter

A young girl wears a shirt she made emblazoned with the image of the late Chavis Carter, a 21-year-old Jonesboro police say shot himself in the temple in the back of a police cruiser, despite his hands having been handcuffed behind his back.
A young girl wears a shirt she made emblazoned with the image of the late Chavis Carter, a 21-year-old Jonesboro police say shot himself in the temple in the back of a police cruiser, despite his hands having been handcuffed behind his back.AP Photo/Danny Johnston

The tale of Chavis Carter's death sounds like something that was conjured as a test of Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation is usually the correct one, but in this case, nothing seems very simple at all.

The account we've been given brings to mind times when friends and family would bring up situations like this in levity amongst friends, excreting the pain of police brutality, intimidation, and suspicion with exaggerated jokes. There's also a chance we could hear something like this mentioned in a conspiracy-laden discussion amongst the fellas in the barbershop, a frenzied tale of how police can bust you, then shoot you in the head in the back of their own cruiser, then stage it to look like a suicide. Then, to top it off, people would actually believe that you killed yourself.

The idea that a 21-year-old man allegedly under the influence of drugs and arrested for marijuana could discharge a firearm into his own right temple while his hands were handcuffed behind his back would be laughable if Chavis Carter weren't dead, and the Jonesboro, Arkansas police were telling that exact story. It wasn't surprising, then, to see the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. visiting with Carter's family and leading the latest protest march yesterday, calling it "Houdini justice," and questioning the gap in the police cruiser dashboard camera video showing the arrest, but not the moment when the gun goes off.

The Houdini reference is particularly apt, given the contortions Carter would have had to make to shoot himself in the head while handcuffed. No doubt responding to the doubts surrounding their account, the Jonesboro police have put on a full-court press in the media to re-enact Carter's arrest and "suicide" for a video released to the media last week. (You can check it out here, courtesy of our colleagues at theGrio.) In it, you see both a male and female officer of similar size to Carter show how once handcuffed, one could easily, kinda, sorta, maybe contort themselves into a position to take their own lives.

Earlier this week, Carter's autopsy report indicated that the death was a suicide, despite the lack of any not test on Carter's body for gunshot residue, thus proving that his finger pulled the trigger in addition to his head receiving the bullet. That may be Arkansas state crime lab policy, but not common sense.

Now, to further buffer their story, the Jonesboro police say in a new memo that Carter called his girlfriend from the back of the police cruiser to say that "he loved her and he was scared" and that he had a gun, according to this morning's Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Records show that Carter made two calls that night -- one of which police allege was from the back of the cruiser, presumably also while handcuffed, somehow. A lawyer for Carter's family denies the call included talk of a gun.

The City of New York's former chief medical examiner, forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, has some serious doubts about the Jonesboro police's story. But in expressing them, Baden got to the most important question of all:

Joy Reid of theGrio raises many more questions based upon the release of the police memo -- including the implication by police of a suicide motive -- all of which should be answered today by the Jonesboro police department. I've never heard of a person being arrested after a thorough search, and put in the back of a police cruiser while they were still in possession of a weapon. Even if the Jonesboro police's magical tale of Carter's "suicide" is true, there was a startling disregard for Carter's life exhibited by the officers and department involved.

Then, again, Occam's Razor applies: what really is the simplest explanation here? That a 21-year-old young man was so distressed by a marijuana-possession arrest and other yet-undiscovered crimes that he decided he wouldn't be taken alive/couldn't face the punishment, and shot himself with a gun police hadn't discovered in the course of two searches? Or is the simplest explanation much more sinister? If it's the latter, I get why the Jonesboro police department has gotten into filmmaking, and is working so hard to cover their tracks.

The report on yesterday's march from KAIT-TV is below.