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When authorities in Madison County, Missouri, found 19-year-old Derontae Martin dead in the attic of a white man’s home, they determined the Black teen died by suicide. But local activists and Martin’s family maintained that law enforcement and forensic pathologists got it wrong, insisting the former high school football player was murdered.
On Friday, a jury of six people who were asked to evaluate local officials findings sided with the Martin family and their supporters, concluding that Martin was not responsible for his own death.
In just two hours, the jury, made up of one white man, one Black man, and four white women, decided that Martin died by violence, not suicide, accident or natural causes, according to St. Louis NBC affiliate KSDK. Now, the Madison County Sheriff's Department and Missouri State Highway Patrol will have to reopen their case and get to the bottom of who killed Martin on April 25.
“I am so glad and happy that they saw through all their lies and they saw the truth, that my baby did not kill himself,” Erica Lotts, Martin's mother, told the news station.
On April 25, Martin joined a group of friends traveling from St. Louis to Fredericktown, a town 90 miles south from the city. They drove to the home of James Wade, to celebrate the 18th birthday of Wade’s daughter. Sometime during the party, Martin died of a gunshot wound to the temple.
According to KSDK, the county prosecutor has the ability to call for an inquest in the county coroner’s findings if there is any uncertainty about a cause of death. These inquiries rarely take place in the state, according to the news station, and only occur in counties that don’t have a county medical examiner. In these cases, the county coroner’s findings can be overturned by a jury.
Madison County Prosecutor M. Dwight Robbins called on the county coroner to conduct the inquest.
The jury’s determination comes months after the county forensic pathologist concluded that the bullet fired into the left side of Martin’s temple was fired from just one inch away. However, a separate autopsy commissioned by Martin’s family determined that the bullet was fired from further away, implying that someone else fired the fatal shot.
Discrepancies in findings about who was responsible for Martin’s death, as well as the fact that he was found dead in the home of a white man who displayed a Confederate battle flag at the front of his house, which is in a majority white community, has sparked months of community opposition to what local authorities concluded. During the courtroom proceedings, protesters stood outside to express their skepticism about the official findings regarding the circumstances of Martin's death.
Meanwhile, in court, 26 witnesses were called to the stand, of which just a dozen testified, according to KSDK. Witnesses included county forensic pathologist Dr. Russel Deidiker, who maintained that Martin died by suicide, adding that the family’s autopsy came after the embalming process would have removed markings and soot that helped him determine the distance from which the weapon was fired.
Deidiker also added that a toxicology report concluded that Martin had a significant amount of methamphetamines in his blood at the time of his death. Martin’s mother disputes this claim, saying that her son had had surgery on his right hand just days before he died, and no drugs had been found in his system just prior to the operation.
Another witness told the jury that he crossed paths with Wade at a local Walmart two days after Martin’s death. The witness said Wade asked him to provide “back up” as he was expecting a gathering of protesters at his residence later. The witness allegedly asked Wade if he was at all involved in Martin’s death, and according to the witness, Wade admitted he was, and used racial slurs in reference to the deceased teen.
Police say they followed up on this lead during their initial investigation, but dropped it after Wade said he hadn’t admitted to the murder, but instead told the witness, “I probably could have shot him and gotten less heat from his people than what I got now from trying to help the guy.” Police added that Wade passed a polygraph test in which he was asked directly about his involvement in the Black teen’s death.
Another witness called to the stand, a man named Zack Graham, who had attended the party, said that not only did he see Martin shoot himself, he alleged that the teen had been acting paranoid in the moments before his death. He said that someone else at the party gave Martin the gun to help him calm down.
The town’s County Deputy Nick Adams, who investigated the scene, told jurors that he interviewed several people who were present at the party, and said that all of them corroborated Graham’s description of Martin’s behavior. He said that after Wade led him to the scene of Martin’s death, he found the gun to the left of Martin’s head in a pool of blood.
However, Adams failed to take any photos of where he says he found the weapon. He instead removed the weapon from the scene and placed it in his patrol car.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol, who were called on by the Sheriff’s Office to also investigate the mysterious death, concluded that the space where Martin was found was too small and undisturbed for anyone else to be present and kill the teen.
The Martin family said that they are pleased with the jury’s decision.
“I think it's a start, but there's a lot further we have to go in this,” Martin’s grandmother Kimberly Robinson said after the decision Friday. “We've got to figure out what really happened, and why it happened.”
The Madison County Sheriff's Department declined to comment on the jury’s decision when reached, referring all queries to the county prosecutor’s officer.
Prosecuting attorney M. Dwight Robbins did not immediately return VICE News’ request for comment.