What happened to Chavis Carter?
It is a pregnant question, potentially even an explosive one. Carter died of a gunshot wound to the temple on the last Saturday in July, but the question about his death has only grown louder and more urgent since then. It is beginning to gather national attention. So we need an answer soon, either so that suspicions can be put to rest and some imperfect peace achieved, or so that suspicions can be validated and some equally imperfect justice sought. The problem is, there are two possible answers to the question, and neither one of them makes much sense.
What happened to Chavis Carter?
The official story is that the 21-year-old African-American man was with two other people when they were detained by police in Jonesboro, Ark. The other two were released, but when the officers searched Carter, they found marijuana. He also had an outstanding warrant. So they searched him again, handcuffed him and put him in the back of their car. As police were preparing to leave, they smelled smoke. They opened the car and found Carter slumped over, covered in blood, dying from a bullet wound to his temple.
The police say he committed suicide.
Last week, the department released a video purporting to show how a man handcuffed in a backseat could shoot himself. The explanation might be easier to buy if the man's name was Houdini, but even if you accept the possibility, it doesn't answer all the questions this episode raises.
How do police search a man twice, find a baggie of pot, but miss something as obvious as a handgun? How did Carter, whose mother says he was left-handed, shoot himself in his right temple? Why would he do it?
Of course, the other theory — that police killed him — raises its own questions.
If you were going to kill a suspect, would you do it while he was handcuffed in the back of your own car? Wouldn't you concoct a more plausible scenario? And again, why?
This encounter would have been nothing new for either the police or Carter. What could have made either of them cross that line?
Police Chief Michael Yates admitted to CNN that his officers' story was "definitely bizarre, and it defies logic at first glance." But he said it was corroborated by a dash cam and by witnesses. Neither the footage nor the witness accounts have, at this writing, been made public. They should be. Meantime, the FBI is investigating, which is a welcome development.
One hopes authoritative answers will soon follow. Because for African-Americans, the abiding fear is that this is just the latest installment of a sordid narrative that ties Chavis Carter to Rodney King, beaten nearly to death by police on a street in Los Angeles.
And Abner Louima sodomized with a stick at a police station in Brooklyn.
And Amadou Diallo shot 41 times by police while reaching for his wallet in a vestibule in the Bronx.
And Arthur McDuffie, dying of police-administered skull fractures at a hospital in Miami.
And Sean Bell in Queens and Oscar Grant in Oakland and Kenneth Chamberlain in White Plains and Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta and Jeffrey Gilbert in suburban Washington and Henry Glover in New Orleans and all the other African-Americans wrongly, disproportionately brutalized and killed over the years by police who seem to equate melanin with the forfeiture of basic human rights.
That pattern of misbehavior degrades a critical tool of effective police work: the public's trust. Which comes back to bite them — and us — when authorities are put in the position, as they have been in Jonesboro, of asking for the benefit of the doubt.
They must understand that that narrative casts a long shadow. So there is one heck of a lot of doubt.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His email is email@example.com.