The trouble with calling Sean Suiter's death a suicide

The independent board investigating Det. Sean Suiter’s death lays out a circumstantial case that he committed suicide, largely because it is unable to concoct an alternative scenario that easily fits the known facts. Its report makes some assumptions about what his mental state might have been, but the closest it comes to any evidence that he might have been considering taking his own life was that he had, on one day two months before, googled the funeral home his family would eventually use — though also one that he, as a homicide detective, might well have had other reasons to be interested in. The report contains no evidence that he told anyone about depression or suicidal ideation, and it reads a great deal into the ambiguous nature of his connection with the disgraced Gun Trace Task Force and his decision not to respond to calls and texts from his lawyer in the hour before his death about a meeting the two were scheduled to have to discuss his scheduled grand jury testimony in the case.

They might be right. The physical evidence in the case — most of which has long been known publicly — is consistent with the suicide theory. Suiter was killed by a single gunshot from his own weapon at close range (the gun’s muzzle had traces of his own DNA), and blood spatters on his shirt sleeve suggest his arm was near the gun when the fatal shot was fired. They also might be wrong. The suicide theory depends on a fundamental contradiction — that Suiter was at once so distressed by the possibility that he would lose his job or worse as a result of his connection with the GTTF that he would take his own life and simultaneously so rational and calculating that he could concoct an elaborate scenario to simulate his own murder outside the view of security cameras or witnesses, a feat requiring split-second timing and considerable luck.

We don’t necessarily find the other possible scenarios more convincing. The idea that an assailant could have overpowered Suiter, taken his gun, killed him without leaving any traces of fingerprints or DNA, and disappeared in the few seconds that the detective was out of sight of his partner, is difficult to fathom. The theory that his death was an inside job connected with the GTTF case — an idea that has gained currency in the West Baltimore neighborhood where the killing took place and on social media — doesn’t make much sense either. Suiter’s testimony was, evidently, not remotely required to secure convictions in the case, and experience suggests that the Baltimore Police Department is not capable of anything like the coordination and single-mindedness that such a conspiracy would require. The IRB addresses the possibility of an accident, but that’s not convincing either, based on the angle of the wound and the position of Suiter’s body.

The reality is that we will probably never know the truth beyond any doubt, and people will still be speculating about this case for years to come, just as they still do about the mysterious death of federal prosecutor Jonathan Luna 15 years ago.

The more pertinent lessons from this report are those criticizing the police’s handling of the initial investigation and manhunt for a supposed cop killer. Despite multiple previous reports covering the department’s failures in similar situations, BPD made decisions during the days-long lockdown of the Harlem Park neighborhood on an ad hoc basis without central organization or clear strategy. That failure dovetails with other deficiencies in the department’s initial response that haunt the case to this day — chiefly former police commissioner Kevin Davis’ repeated public assertions about the existence of a dangerous killer, despite the lack of clear evidence that one existed, and the widespread violations of the civil rights of Harlem Park residents who were subject to unconstitutional searches and warrant sweeps. That clearly exacerbated public mistrust in the department, and it may have colored the manner in which the homicide department investigated the matter.

The trouble with the review board’s conclusion that Sean Suiter committed suicide isn’t that it’s impossible to prove for certain. It’s the possibility that the Baltimore Police Department could view it as an absolution of its failures. Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle says the case remains open but that he’s forwarding the report to the homicide division as new evidence to consider, and the medical examiner’s office plans to use it to re-evaluate its conclusion that Suiter’s death was a homicide. But this is one mystery that can’t and shouldn’t be wrapped up with a tidy bow. The Suiter case — from his connection to the Gun Trace Task Force to the blatant disregard of the constitution in the investigation of his death to the inability of the department to bring anyone to justice — represents virtually every strand of dysfunction in what has been one of the lowest points in the Baltimore Police Department’s history. We have no idea who killed Sean Suiter. Each explanation is as implausible as the next, and we are truly sorry to think that his family and colleagues may never get a definitive answer. But what we should not do is pretend that we have found one and move on.

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