Vanessa and the Rev. Victor White Sr. look on as attorney Ben Crump (second from right), speaks about the death of their son, Victor White III. Attorney Carol Lexing is on the far right. (Andrea Shaw/AP)
Vanessa and the Rev. Victor White Sr. look on as attorney Benjamin Crump, second from right, speaks about the death of the couple’s son, Victor White III. Attorney Carol Lexing is on the far right. (Andrea Shaw/Associated Press)

The actions of the Ferguson, Mo., police department in the shooting death of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson were curious, if not unbelievable and reprehensible. But the Louisiana State Police and the Iberia Parish coroner take things to a whole new level of with their conflicting and even more dubious claims involving a deadly encounter between police and a handcuffed black man.

According to a report on NBCNews.com, Victor White III and Isaiah Lewis were inside a gas station convenience store in New Iberia, La., in the waning hours of March 2. A fight between two other men outside the store broke out. After those two left the front of the store, White and Lewis went on their way. But they were stopped by police shortly thereafter. The police report says White complied with a “consented pat-down,” which led the officer to find “suspected marijuana in front pants pocket.” The NBC News report notes that police called for backup after running White’s and Lewis’s name through a police database. What happened next, according to the State Police press release cited by NBC, strains credulity.

“[Victor White III] was taken into custody, handcuffed behind his back, and transported to the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office for processing. Once at the Sheriff’s Office, White became uncooperative and refused to exit the deputy’s patrol vehicle. As the deputy requested assistance from other deputies, White produced a handgun and fired one round striking himself in the back.”

The Iberia Parish coroner’s report, obtained by NBC News last month, contradicts the surreal events described above. In fact, its findings are downright unbelievable.

But according to the full final report of the Iberia Parish coroner, which was released nearly six months later and obtained exclusively by NBC News, White was shot in the front, not the back. The bullet entered his right chest and exited under his left armpit. White was left-handed, according to family members. According to the report, the forensic pathologist found gunshot residue in the wound, but not the sort of stippling that a close-range shot can sometimes produce. He also found abrasions on White’s face.

And yet, despite the contradictions – and even though White’s hands were never tested for gunpowder residue – the Iberia Parish coroner still supported the central contention of the initial police statement issued back in March. Dr. Carl Ditch ruled that White shot himself, and declared his death a suicide.

First, police wanted us to believe that a man with his hands cuffed behind his back in a patrol car produced a gun that wasn’t found in two previous searches and committed suicide by shooting himself in the back. Then, the coroner wants us to believe that the handcuffed man in the back of the squad car actually committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. No wonder White’s parents, through their attorney Benjamin Crump, are calling on the federal government to conduct an independent investigation into their son’s death. “They just want the truth. They want the answers,” Crump said at a news conference yesterday with White’s parents.

When I first heard about this troubling case over the weekend while watching MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris Perry,” I thought for sure she was talking about an old case from a few years back. Turns out, what happened to White is at least the third such case in recent years. Crump cited the 2012 case of Chavis Carter in Arkansas and the 2013 case of Jesus Huerta in North Carolina.

Victor White II wants answers in the death of his son in police custody on March 2. (Lee Ball/AP)
Victor White II wants answers in the death of his son in Louisiana police custody in March. (Lee Ball/Associated Press)

“We have a terrible recent trend that is occurring across state lines that finds these ‘Houdini handcuff’ suicides while they are in the custody of police that defies all logic, all common sense,” Crump said during his call for an independent investigation by the justice department. “You can’t make me understand how my son took his left hand, when he was handcuffed behind the back, and shot himself,” said White’s father, Rev. Victor White II. “I don’t believe a thing they’re saying at this point.”

Can’t say that I blame him. White, a Baptist minister, has said that he learned the details of his son’s death not from the Louisiana State Police, but from friends who saw the press release issued by the law enforcement agency. When anyone dies in police custody, the feds should take a look. When the circumstances are as murky as these, such a look-see should be automatic. In light of Ferguson, taking the word for it from local police officials just won’t cut it anymore.

 

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.