Calls for answers in the mysterious slaying of Chavis Carter intensified early Tuesday. This came mere hours after as many as 500 community residents turned out near his hometown of Mississippi for a candlelight vigil and to reminisce about the life and times of the 21-year-old victim as well as implore authorities to leave no stone unturned in unraveling the riddle of his untimely demise.
Carter died of a single gunshot wound to the head last Saturday after being taken into police custody on a minor drug charge and “double-handcuffed” by officers Keith Baggett and Ron Marsh following a routine traffic stop during which he was twice searched for drugs or other contraband before being placed in the back seat of a police vehicle. The two white teens he was traveling with were both released without harm or incident.
Still, cops now maintain Carter committed suicide while he set in the idling cruiser by somehow wrestling free a .380-caliber, cobra semi-automatic revolver he magically managed to hide on his person, not to mention equally dramatically raise it above his shoulders and fire the fatal blast into his temple.
“Any given officer has missed something on a search … be it drugs, knives or razor blades,” reasoned Jonesboro Police Department Sgt. Lyle Waterworth. “In this instance, it happened to be a gun.” Added Police Chief Michael Yates: “We’ve seen people in handcuffs do some remarkable things, smoke a cigarette, even talk on a phone.”
The FBI has now gone on record as revealing it plans to closely monitor the case and investigation, including performing ballistics tests on the handgun found near Chavis’ body, which had been reported stolen more than a month ago in Jonesboro. The bureau is also studying dash cam videos recorded at the scene of the incident as well as awaiting the results of an autopsy.
Even given all the mystery, Teresa Carter has been adamant in insisting she knows precisely what happened to her son. “I think they killed him,” she told Memphis-based TV station WREG. “My son was not suicidal,” she said, adding that he was left-handed and the fatal blast was fired to his right temple.
No matter the outcome of the investigation, almost of equal concern to community residents insists Rev. Perry Jackson, president of the Jonesboro NAACP branch, is the overall impact the incident stands to have on the already fragile populous.
“How does a person who is handcuffed commit suicide?” he asked in directing the question to Jonesboro Police Chief Michael Yates. “Add to that the stigma he has of being unfair to the minority population and people are really questioning what’s really going on. That’s the mood in the black community.”
Indeed the relationship between African-American and Jonesboro force appears tattered; all lines of communications shredded in recent years by a system and hierarchy most blacks such as Jackson senses remains intent on locking them out of all of the community’s most critical strategizing sessions.
In recent times, the Yates-led force has been repeatedly accused of ignoring all calls to increase diversity within the department and actual numbers surely bear that out. According to recent Census data, Jonesboro experienced a 21.2 percent population increase between 2000 and 2010, with blacks accounting for nearly one-fifth of the growth spurt.
And yet, according to Dr. George Grant, co-chair of the city’s Diversity Coalition Committee, blacks still compose less than two percent (three out of 149 officers) of the city’s police force. “Our position was that this was not satisfactory,” Grant expounded to local media. “That is not representative of the diversity in the community.”
With that in mind, just last year a Grant-led faction spoke extensively at a Jonesboro city council meeting about the department’s lack of diversity where they made countless recommendations on ways to improve the situation, only to witness the best laid of their plans fall on deaf ears. In addition to the dearth of African-American officers, no Latinas are currently represented as members of the department.
“There’s also a lack of diversity within the fire department,” said Jackson. “But the chief of the fire department, we’ve been a little bit better able to work with him than Chief Yates. I personally think that if Chief Yates would do more as far as community relations, Jonesboro would probably be a better place to live, but I don’t think he’s really willing to work with the public,” added Rev. Jackson.
The end-result, some fear, may now be the Carter case could serve as the impetus for some sort of community revolt long in coming based on the treatment of minorities within the city’s border and system they feel continues to operate unjustly and in blatant disregard of their best interests.
“I’ve met with the mother and I’ve met with the father,” Jackson said of Carter case. “As far as their reactions, they don’t believe that their son committed suicide. According to his mother, he’s just not that type of person who would kill himself. His father said it as well.”
Meanwhile, local bail bondsman Sherman Pye speculates that overall community angst might have as much to do with a lack of governmental transparency as it does racial dynamics.
“It’s not that we are trying to help him or stand up because he’s black, it’s because of his situation, that’s the main focus,” said Pye. “It’s that he’s a human being, a young individual. It’s more or less everybody waving the red flag, saying what is going on, not picketing or rioting or acting ill-mannered. “Everybody is just on pins and needles waiting to see the outcome. We just want to make sure he’s dealt a fair deal.”
A “Justice for Chavis Carter” page has already been established on Facebook demanding that authorities “investigate whether police committed murder” by staging a “seemingly impossible suicide.” In one of the more heartfelt posts, one responder waxes: “I DIDN'T KNOW THIS YOUNG MAN BT WE AS A PPL NEED TO TAKE A STAND IF WE DON'T THINGS LIKE THIS WILL ALWAYS HAPPEN. THIS YOUNG MAN COULDVE BEEN ANY OF OUR LIL BROTHERS,COUSINS OR WHATEVER. THE TIME IS NOW WE MUST STAND UP FOR THIS YOUNG MAN AND LET OUR VOICES BE HEARD!”
Both officers involved remain on paid administrative leave.
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.