MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Chavis Carter’s family hasn’t accepted the official explanation for his death: that he was on meth when he fatally shot himself while his hands were cuffed behind him in the backseat of a patrol car in Arkansas.
The family portrays the 21-year-old as a bright, young man who aspired to be a veterinarian, who liked shopping for sneakers and playing basketball. As questions swirl about how and why Carter died, his family also has been demanding more answers from authorities.
“If he did it, I want to know how it happened,” his grandmother, Anne Winters Carter, said in an interview. “And if he didn’t do it, then we want justice.”
Jonesboro, Ark., police have faced criticism because they say officers searched Carter twice but didn’t find a gun before they noticed him slumped over and bleeding in the back of a patrol car on July 28. Questions about race have cropped up too, because Carter was black and police said the two officers who stopped the truck he was in were white, as were the other people in the vehicle.
The local branch of the NAACP has called for a thorough investigation, and the FBI has said it’s monitoring the case. Carter’s grandmother and his mom, Teresa Carter, are also working with a high-profile legal firm that represented O.J. Simpson.
Some of the family’s supporters marched through Jonesboro, Ark., on Tuesday. One woman had a sign that read, “Stop the lies!! No suicide.” That march came a day after a candlelight vigil was held for Carter in Memphis and police released an autopsy report from the Arkansas state crime lab that deemed his death a suicide.
Carter had a past — court records show he had an arrest warrant stemming from a drug charge in Mississippi — but his family says there was more to his story. They described him as a good kid who liked bugs and animals.
“He used to always say, ‘The world gonna know my name,’” said Bianca Tipton, one of Carter’s friends. “Now the world do know his name.”
After graduating from high school in 2010, Carter got some general courses out of the way and was planning on taking classes at a college in Arkansas this fall.
He used to go shopping for sneakers with his grandma. Jordans were his favorite, especially a blue and white pair.
“Everything had to match,” Winters Carter said.
The ruling that his death was a suicide was confounding to her and others who knew Carter. It’s not just that he was searched and handcuffed. They note that Carter was left-handed but was shot in his right temple.
“If he’s double-locked and … he’s shot in his right temple, but he is left-handed, that’s the part I don’t understand,” Winters Carter said.
Police have released video showing how a man could put a gun to his temple while his hands were cuffed behind his back. They shared footage recorded by dashboard cameras the night of the shooting and sent out a copy of the autopsy report.
“There’s no other explanation to this … other than that he put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger and that’s what we call a suicide,” said Stephen Erickson, a medical examiner who conducted the autopsy.
Toxicology tests showed Carter’s blood tested positive for at least trace amounts of the anti-anxiety medication diazepam and the painkiller oxycodone in addition to a larger amount of methamphetamine. His urine test also returned a positive result for marijuana.
Erickson said Carter was under the intoxicating effects of meth at the time of his death. It wasn’t clear if he was under the influence of marijuana or if the positive test came from a past use.
“The methamphetamine is going to play a large role in his mental status,” Erickson said, adding that he couldn’t tell how it affected his behavior because people react differently.
Winters Carter said she was surprised by the toxicology results. She didn’t know whether he was on any medication recently and she didn’t know of any drug problems with her grandson.
“When he got to Jonesboro, I can’t really say,” she said. “But with me, no. And if he did, I didn’t see it.”
At the candlelight vigil for Carter outside the National Civil Rights Museum, family members and supporters focused on his accomplishments and passions, not the drugs found in his system.
Kia Granberry held up a stone before she prayed with the small crowd.
“People brought to Jesus a woman who may have had a troubled past and when they asked Jesus what to do to the woman, he said, ‘Cast the first stone,’” she said. “So I want to remind you when people judge you or people say what they want to say about your son and your brother and your cousin, you remind them to cast the first stone.”
Associated Press photographer Danny Johnston contributed to this report.