Family of teen who died in custody seeks answers

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comDecember 6, 2013 

Jesus Huerta

2012 DURHAM COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFF

  • Family needs money to bury Huerta

    Jesus Huerta’s family held a memorial service for him two days before Thanksgiving, but they haven’t buried him.

    The teen’s remains are being held in storage by a Durham funeral home until the family comes up with the more than $14,000 it will take to bury his body. Meanwhile, the family is struggling to pay a daily storage fee of $40, or roughly $1,200 a month.

    Huerta’s older brother, Raziel Huerta, would not name the funeral home where his brother’s body has been. The family called funeral homes throughout the county before settling on one that told them it would cost about $14,000 to bury him. Those costs include embalming, a cemetery burial plot, a coffin liner and casket.

    Jesus Huerta’s mother, Sylvia Fernandez, works as a dishwasher at a restaurant and does not receive public assistance.

    Those wishing to make a donation toward Jesus Huerta’s burial expenses can make a deposit into a memorial fund set up in the teen’s name at Wells Fargo Bank. The account number is 3890871241.

— The family of Jesus Huerta wants an explanation for the teen’s death in the backseat of a police car last month, but officials say the results of the two investigations into the incident aren’t considered public documents under state law.

Both the police department’s internal investigation into Huerta’s 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 they’re part of the officer’s 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 Huerta’s family and the public will be up to city officials and the county district attorney’s 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 doesn’t end up in criminal court.

“If there is not a criminal prosecution then it’s 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 family’s attorney asked the city to give it the results of the police department investigation into Huerta’s 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. “Shouldn’t 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 mother’s 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 family’s 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. Duncan’s 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 Huerta’s 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 Huerta’s death over the SBI, standard procedure in an officer-involved shooting. He said his department’s 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 coward’s 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. “It’s important to start that conversation.”

A Latino advocacy group has started an online petition asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Huerta’s 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.

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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