“Whether that wound was accidental or intentional is unknown at this time,” Lopez told reporters during a news conference Wednesday at police headquarters.
He said that the state medical examiner’s office confirmed the cause of death. However, state officials told The Herald-Sun that although an autopsy was completed weeks ago, no report had been released nor was it available Wednesday.
It remains unclear exactly how Huerta – who Lopez said was searched and cuffed behind the back by Officer Samuel Duncan before he was put into the patrol car – managed to get a gun into the car with him, let alone pull the trigger.
The chief provided more narrative for the events of the early morning hours of Nov. 19 than had been released before:
Duncan responded to the 1200 block of Washington Street in reference to a runaway. Once he reached the area, Duncan encountered Huerta and thought he might be the runaway.
“Another male with Huerta was also located at the scene and he gave officers a false name,” Lopez said. “Another officer took this person, Jamie Perez, to headquarters where Perez was issued a citation for resist, delay and obstruct and then he was released.”
Duncan found an outstanding warrant for a second-degree trespassing charge against Huerta. The officer then handcuffed, searched and detained Huerta in the back seat.
On the way to the Durham County Jail, Duncan stopped at police headquarters on Chapel Hill Street to obtain a copy of the warrant. As he pulled into the parking lot, the officer heard what he thought was a gunshot and “jumped from the vehicle for fear of being shot,” Lopez said. The car, still moving, rolled through the parking lot until it stopped against another parked vehicle.
Duncan immediately called 911 and asked for paramedics after he saw Huerta slumped over in the back seat, “still handcuffed behind him and not moving,” the chief said.
Investigators found a handgun on the floorboard of the patrol car.
“Our department continues to investigate the origin of the weapon, but we can confirm that it was not a departmental weapon and no officer fired a weapon during this incident,” Lopez said.
“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,” he said. “While incidents like this are not common, they unfortunately have happened in other jurisdictions in the past.”
In December 2012, a high school student in the Houston area shot himself while in the back seat of a patrol car after he had been cuffed and searched.
Several months earlier, in Arkansas, a man named Chavis Carter was searched twice for weapons before he was handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car. Police in Jonesboro said he too managed to shoot himself with a hidden gun.
“You’d be surprised what an individual handcuffed behind can do,” Lopez said.
Durham investigators would not divulge the type of handgun found with Huerta or where the bullet struck him in the head, saying it was still under review by the State Bureau of Investigation.
Part of the investigation includes exploring “the nature of the search” carried out by Duncan and whether it was thorough enough, Lopez said.
Duncan remains on administrative leave with pay pending completion of the investigation by the department’s professional standards division.
“Once again, our thoughts and prayers remain with the Huerta family as we work through this sad and difficult situation,” Lopez said.
Shortly after the incident, Jose Gomez told The Herald-Sun that he didn’t believe that his friend, Huerta, would commit suicide.
“From the bottom of my heart, I believe he would not take his own life,” Gomez said. “It wasn’t in him to do something like that. He was happy to be alive.”
Alex Charns, a lawyer representing Huerta’s family, on Wednesday issued a statement criticizing the department’s explanation.
“The chief’s statement is a conclusion exonerating, in part, the DPD, while blaming the one person who can’t speak for himself,” Charns said. “The chief offers no details to support his claims. We are asked to trust without any way to verify the information.”
The family made a public records request seeking all communications that touch on what happened to Jesus Huerta, including text messages, emails, voicemails and video footage from the patrol car and headquarters on the morning of his death.
Earlier this week, representatives from a Latino-focused organization called Presente.org joined Huerta’s family in asking the federal government to lead an investigation into officer-related deaths and profiling concerns in Durham.
On Wednesday, that organization’s executive director, Arturo Carmona, said the chief’s statement underlined the need for federal intervention.
“The absurd statements by Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez about the shooting death of Jesus Huerta are sad, predictable and prove what the Huerta family and local Latinos know: the Durham police cannot and will not conduct a transparent investigation of the incident,” Carmona said.
“The Department of Justice needs to step in.”