Autopsy: Arkansas Man Shot Himself While Cuffed in Back of Police Car

While an Arkansas medical examiner's report supports the accounts of officers who say Chavis Carter committed suicide, Carter's mother says she still doesn't believe it.

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Krystin McClellan / The Jonesboro Sun / AP

Supporters of Chavis Carter and his family, including 9-year-olds Taelor Chavis, center left, and Kimi Miller, center right, hold signs during the candlelight vigil held in honor of Carter at the First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ark. Carter was shot in the head while his hands were cuffed behind him in an Arkansas patrol car on July 28.

Despite what critics are calling an acute improbability with an implausible explanation, Arkansas officials have ruled the death of a 21-year-old man a suicide after he was found shot in the back of a police cruiser — even though he was handcuffed from behind and had been searched twice for weapons.

Officials say Chavis Carter, 21, was picked up by authorities on July 29 during a traffic stop in¬†Jonesboro, Ark.,¬†while riding in a pickup truck with friends. The other two men were let go, but Carter was held on a felony warrant from Mississippi once police discovered he had given them a fake name. A police report says he was placed in the back of the patrol car with handcuffs on and his hands behind his back; later, officers returned to the car to find that he’d been shot in the head. He was taken to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead.

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While Jonesboro police admit the circumstances are “bizarre,” they maintain that Carter committed suicide while in the car with a weapon he’d somehow concealed. They later released a reenactment video showing an officer of about Carter’s height and weight demonstrating how he might have shot himself. A dashboard camera video shows Carter being led from the vehicle by police, but showing no signs of resistance. Police say he was found with a small amount of marijuana, and a few small plastic bags to package them. There are no apparent sounds of a gunshot on the video and it does not show the moment any weapons were fired.

But the autopsy report, released Monday by the Arkansas State Crime Lab, backs up what police have said. It describes Carter as having marks on his hands consistent with being handcuffed and of an entrance wound to the right temple and an exit wound to the left. The report does not mention any gunshot residue found on his hands, which would be consistent with having fired a weapon. Nor does it place blame on anyone but Carter himself.

In consideration of the circumstances of death and after autopsy of the body, it is our opinion that Chavis Carter, a 21-year-old black male, died of a gunshot wound of the head. The agencies responsible for the investigation of his death were the Jonesboro Police Department and the Craighead County Coroner’s Office. They reported that he was detained during a traffic stop. He was cuffed and placed into a police car, where apparently he produced a weapon, and despite being handcuffed, shot himself in the head.

A toxicology report says Carter had tested positive for methamphetamine, oxycodone and marijuana, but showed he had not been drinking on the night of his death.

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The two arresting officers, as well as the two friends of Carters whom they let go, are white. The police report says officers searched Carter, but not the two friends, aged 18 and 19. The truck they were driving was searched.

In an e-mail sent by Jonesboro Police to TIME, officials say investigative parts of the incident report, search warrant returns and cell phone videos have not been released yet.

Carter’s mother isn’t buying the police’s version of the story, however. Theresa Carter told CNN that while her son was shot in the right side of the head — which the autopsy report supports — he was actually left-handed. In addition, she says, he called his girlfriend and told her he would contact her once he was released from custody. “They searched him twice,” she said. “I just want to know what really happened.”