DURHAM — The family of Jesus Huerta wants an explanation for the teens death in the backseat of a police car last month, but officials say the results of the two investigations into the incident arent considered public documents under state law.
Both the police departments internal investigation into Huertas death and a separate inquiry by the State Bureau of Investigation are exempted from public records laws, officials say. The police department says it cannot make public its findings because theyre part of the officers personnel file, while the SBI says its report is not a public record because it is part of a criminal investigation.
How the results are disclosed to Huertas family and the public will be up to city officials and the county district attorneys office.
Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez has promised to make a full public disclosure of how Jesus Huerta died. And a Durham prosecutor said this week that the family should be able to review the findings of the SBI report, though only if the case doesnt end up in criminal court.
If there is not a criminal prosecution then its up to District Attorney [Leon] Stanback as to whether we will release it or not, said assistant district attorney Roger Echols. In other words, that is something that can be done.
This week, the familys attorney asked the city to give it the results of the police department investigation into Huertas death. In a letter to city attorney Patrick W. Baker, attorney Alex Charns said releasing information about the incident will help bolster the credibility of the Durham Police Department, which has been criticized for its handling of three fatal shootings this year.
Why did 17-year-old Jesus Huerta die in the backseat of a Durham Police Dept. cruiser in the parking lot of police headquarters? Charns asked Baker in the letter. Shouldnt being handcuffed (behind the back as DPD policy requires) after being frisked for weapons (DPD policy) and sitting in the backseat of a police car be one of the safest places in the city?
Police considered Jesus Chuy Huerta, a 10th-grader at Riverside High School, a runaway when he walked out of his mothers apartment just before 2 a.m. on Nov. 19. His older sister called 911 and told a dispatcher that his mother caught him using drugs before he walked out of the familys apartment on Washington Street.
Jesus Huerta was picked up by officer Samuel A.M. Duncan shortly before 3 a.m. at the intersection of Washington and Trinity streets, about two blocks from where he lived. Duncans patrol car was in the parking lot at police headquarters on West Chapel Hill Street just before 3 a.m. when the officer reported hearing a loud noise from the backseat and jumped from the car.
A police officer, presumably Duncan, radioed emergency dispatchers to report shots fired in the headquarters parking lot and then asked for medical assistance for a gunshot wound for an approximately 18-year-old male, not breathing, according to a recording made public by the police.
Police have not yet told Jesus Huertas family how he died.
Chief Lopez said Duncan intended to charge the teen with second-degree trespassing. Police had not said where or when Huerta was accused of trespassing, but this week spokeswoman Kammie Michael said Duncan was taking Huerta back to headquarters to pick up an outstanding arrest warrant from July. A manager at an apartment complex had accused of Huerta of refusing to leave the complex, and police charged him with trespassing the next day.
The charge was dropped on Nov. 20, the day after Huerta died.
Lopez turned the investigation of Huertas death over the SBI, standard procedure in an officer-involved shooting. He said his departments internal affairs unit and professional standards division would conduct their own investigations.
Charns stated in the letter that in the past the city has hid behind a cowards veil and claimed that Internal Affairs findings were a personnel record, and asked us to trust the city.
You say you want to be transparent. You can be, Charns said this week. Its important to start that conversation.
A Latino advocacy group has started an online petition asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Huertas death. The group, Presente.org, noted in the petition that Huerta is the second Latino man and the third man of color to die in the presence of the Durham police since July.
On July 27, Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo, 33, was fatally shot by officer R.S. Mbuthia after Mbuthia and other officers told him to drop a kitchen knife he held. Witnesses later said Ocampo, a native Honduran who did not speak English well, was holding the knife out, handle first, to an officer when he was shot in the head.
Ocampo was a suspect in a non-fatal stabbing earlier that day.
On Sept. 17, Derek Deandre Walker, 26, was fatally shot by Cpl. R.C. Swartz when Walker pointed a gun at officers after an hourlong standoff at CCB Plaza downtown. During the standoff, hostage negotiators had talked to Walker, who was distraught over losing a custody battle over his young son.
The SBI is reviewing both cases.