When police in New Iberia, Louisiana, claimed that 22-year-old Victor White III shot himself in the back of a squad car while his hands were cuffed behind his back this past March, White's family was shocked and disbelieving.
The family demanded answers, but got none. When Rev. Victor White Sr. originally went to identify his son's body, he was told nothing about the cause of death — in fact, he discovered the police version of events via Facebook. Louisiana State Police released a March 3 news release saying White had "produced a handgun and fired one round striking himself in the back."
"I was outraged, because they didn't tell me anything," White Sr. told reporters at a press conference this Monday, at which the White family called for a federal investigation. "Everybody all over the place knew what they were saying happened to my son, that he shot himself in the back. But I'll say this: my son didn't kill himself. My son had too much going on in his life at the time to take his life."
It took five months for the coroner to finally disclose an autopsy report. The family's legal team suspected that the state was trying to bury the news when it partially released the report's findings during the upheaval in Ferguson this August, because the report showed that Victor White III had been shot in the right side of his chest, from the front, while his hands were cuffed behind his back.
But, improbably, the coroner's report also maintained that White had killed himself. Days later, the coroner released a statement asserting that although White was handcuffed behind his back, "due to his body habitus, the pathologist and investigators agree that he would have been able to manipulate the weapon to the point where the contact entrance wound was found."
White's family members have noted that he was left-handed, and are dumbfounded by the notion that he shot himself in the front of his right side while his hands were cuffed behind him.
On Tuesday, the Department of Justice confirmed that the FBI, the US Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, and inspectors from its Civil Rights Division are investigating White's death. The announcement was an unusually rapid response to the White family's press conference the day before.
Star attorney Benjamin Crump, who also represents the families of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, recently joined the family's legal team. At Monday's press conference, Crump denounced the story of White's death as a "Houdini handcuff suicide" whose scenario "defies all kinds of logic."
The family's lawyer, Carol Powell Lexing, told VICE News yesterday that the case "has just been a constant avalanche of discrepancies."
"They alleged initially that when they first stopped Mr. White, they searched him twice and first found a bag of marijuana and then the second time found cocaine," she noted. "But they said they didn't find a gun either time."
Police had originally alleged that White was involved in a fight outside a New Iberia convenience store. But Lexing told VICE News the first thing her investigators did was go to the store and watch the security camera footage.
"He didn't even know those people who were fighting. The video from the store shows that he was not involved," she said. "But when his dad saw those bruises on him [at the morgue], then they tried to link him to the fight."
Later, the story changed. Lexing said that the police told White's parents that the bruises on his face were caused when he shot himself.
Lexing said that it's common knowledge that Louisiana police carry what she called "throw-down guns" — untraceable personal weapons that can't be used to link them to shootings — suggesting one might have been used on White.
The White family's legal team is concerned that the ongoing state police investigation could be corrupted by the department's close relationship to the New Iberia sheriff, a former state trooper.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department appears to be tentatively wading into the case. Louisiana US Attorney Stephanie Finley said in a statement that the federal investigation "will supplement, rather than supplant, the investigation by state authorities."
She noted that federal authorities "will carefully review the results of the current investigation by the Louisiana State Police, will determine what additional investigation, if any, is necessary to determine who fired the fatal shot, and whether the evidence demonstrates a willful civil rights violation."
Louisiana State Police spokesperson Doug Cain told VICE News that the department anticipates the release of the investigation's findings later this week — first to the White family and the district attorney, and then to the public.
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