In a controversial case that has stirred the Latino community, police in Durham, N.C., affirmed on Wednesday that a teenager who died while in custody last month shot himself in the head while handcuffed in the back seat of a police car, according to CBS affiliate WNCT.
Durham police chief Jose L. Lopez Jr. held a press conference and announced that the medical examiner's office had confirmed that Jesus Huerta, 17, had died "from a gunshot wound to his head." He added, "Whether that wound was accidental or intentional is unknown at this time."
His family was concerned when the 10th-grader hastily left home after his mother reportedly caught him using drugs on the night of his arrest, according to the Raleigh News & Observer, so they called 911. The police say they learned, after catching up with Huerta just a few blocks from his home, that he had an outstanding warrant from July linked to trespassing charges.
Police later said that the officer who was transporting Huerta after his arrest, a rookie just eight years older than his charge, heard a loud noise from the back seat of the police cruiser when he pulled into the police department parking lot.
Huerta’s family released a response to Lopez’s statements at the conference.
"How did Jesus end up dead in the parking lot at police headquarters in these circumstances? Searched. Handcuffed behind the back. How is it even possible to shoot oneself?" the statement read.
At the press conference, Lopez asserted that it is possible. "I know that it is hard for people not in law enforcement to understand how someone could be capable of shooting themselves while handcuffed behind the back," Lopez said. "While incidents like this are not common, they unfortunately have happened in other jurisdictions in the past."
Nonetheless, the State Bureau of Investigators is looking into the incident for criminal violations – a routine step in such cases.
Huerta’s death stirred strong emotions in the community. More than 200 protesters held a march in November to express anger over the circumstances surrounding his death.