DURHAM — Mayor Bill Bell said he expects more information on the Jesús Huerta case within a week, as high-level pressure mounts for a fuller accounting in the teenager’s death.
In an interview Sunday, Bell confirmed that the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has asked to meet with him about the Huerta case. The mayor also said he asked the state attorney general and director of the State Bureau of Investigation about two weeks ago to speed up the SBI review of the fatal shooting.
The Commission on Civil Rights works to strengthen federal civil rights laws by studying alleged discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, national origin or in the administration of justice, according to its website .
Chairman Martin R. Castro wants “to discuss the recent death of a Latino youth in police custody in Durham and other examples of such incidences in minority communities,” according to an email to Bell from Juana Silverio, Castro’s special assistant and counsel.
Silverio initially proposed meeting Jan. 2-3, but then contacted Bell to say Castro would have to postpone to a later date. Bell said he had no other information about the proposed visit.
Huerta, 17, was a 10th grader at Riverside High School; he was found shot dead while handcuffed in the back of police patrol car Nov. 19 after he had been picked up on a trespassing charge. Two protest marches about the case turned violent and have led to multiple arrests.
Like Bell, City Councilman Steve Schewel has called on police to release findings from their internal investigation.
In a letter to neighborhood groups last week, Schewel said he did not want to see a repeat of the Dec. 19 protest, when police used tear gas to disperse a crowd estimated at 150 people.
“This is not a law enforcement strategy that can succeed long-term, and it is not the kind of response that Durham wants,” Schewel wrote.
The police response was “well intentioned,” after some demonstrators began throwing rocks and/or bottles, the councilman said. “Instead of swinging night sticks at people, the police used first smoke and subsequently tear gas to disperse the crowd. This meant that no one got badly hurt, which was a real achievement. But it also meant that innocent people were terrified and sent reeling through our streets.”
On Dec. 23, Durham resident Beth Messersmith posted on momsrising.org, an online grass-roots network with 28,000 members in the state chapter, and urged readers to join the Huerta family and national advocacy group Presente.org’s call for a federal investigation.
“As mothers, Jesús’ story hits us hard,” Messersmith said in an email Saturday. “The explanations offered by police thus far have left more questions than answers. No mother should ever have to fear that our children would come to harm at the hands of those charged with protecting them. Jesús’ mother deserves to know what happened to her son.”
Efforts to reach Lopez last week were unsuccessful. In a press conference two days after the Dec. 19 march, the chief said officers used “the best practices in law enforcement” and that the police response made things safer when some of the marchers began throwing things.
“I’ll tell you,” Lopez said, “while the rocks were in the air, when the bottles were in the air, those children were at more risk than (by) anything we did. … Our presence really ensured the safety of the people who were there for a positive purpose.”
In a message posted on the police department’s Facebook Dec. 22, Lopez conceded the time it’s taking to release information has fueled tensions.
“We understand that the limited information that has been provided thus far has created questions, concerns and stirred emotions,” he said. “As information becomes available, we will work to provide it.”
Two weeks ago, Lopez said it appeared Huerta shot himself in the head with a gun that was not the officer’s, prompting some to ask how someone handcuffed behind the back could shoot himself in the head. At the press conference, Lopez said the SBI had confirmed Huerta was wearing gloves and that the gloves had gunpowder residue on them.
Durham Police Department procedure requires an officer to search a prisoner before placing him in a patrol car to make sure no contraband and no weapons were overlooked in the original search.
When the police vehicle has a shield, the prisoner is to be placed in the rear seat area, handcuffed behind the back, and the handcuffs are to be double-locked. If possible, the prisoner will wear a seat-belt or shoulder harness. The driving officer will ensure that the rear doors are locked.
If the vehicle does not have a shield, the officer is required to follow the same procedures, but the prisoner will sit in the front passenger seat.
‘A lot of questions’
Bell said the press conference was the first time he heard Huerta was wearing gloves. That detail only raises more questions, he said.
“I have a lot of questions,” he said. “Did the kid have gloves on when he was arrested? It still isn’t clear to me whose gun it was. Why was the gun in the vehicle?”
Bell said he got no indication from his phone call to the SBI when its report will be ready. He said he’s heard the officer in the case, Samuel Duncan, has hired a lawyer, which may be complicating getting answers quickly.
But Bell also said he wants more information from police by Friday and no later than Jan. 6. Any further delay only makes it look like the Police Department and SBI are colluding, he said.
“If it’s truly independent, they ought to release the report,” he said.
Alexander: 919-932-2008; Schultz: 919-932-2003