Editor’s note: This story combines parts of stories the INDY has broken on its news blog with the most reporting on Tuesday afternoon.
From the moment of the 9-1-1 call reporting Jesus Huerta as a runaway, to his death 44 minutes later in the back of Durham Police Car No. 225, law enforcement made several pivotal decisions. Any one of them, in retrospect, could have changed the arc of a boy’s life, a family’s grief and the fate of a rookie police officer.
While those decisions may have violated protocolan internal police investigation is ongoingthey were not criminal, Durham County District Attorney Leon Stanback announced Tuesday.
“After having received and reviewed the complete SBI file, the Chief Medical examiner’s report, relevant state crime laboratory reports, physical evidence and forensic photographs, the Durham County District Attorney has found there is not probably cause to charge a crime in Jesus Huerta’s death,” a statement read Tuesday.
Duncan was transporting Huerta to the police station shortly before 3 a.m. on Nov. 19, when the 17-year-old killed himself with a black Haskell .45 caliber pistol while handcuffed in the back of a police car.
Duncan could still face departmental sanctions or be sued in civil court.
Alex Charns, attorney for the Huerta family, issued a statement: “We have no comment to make about the D.A.’s decision today. We have not seen the SBI report so we can’t know how the investigation was conducted … We are conducting our own investigation. That is often the case in civil liberties and civil rights matters, particularly involving the police. Years often go by before the truth is uncovered.”
History turned on the following events of Nov. 19:
Although Huerta’s sister advised the 9-1-1 dispatcher that Huerta had been suicidal, this information was not relayed to the patrol officers. Huerta’s mental condition was not relayed to officers, center director James T. Soukup said last week, because “it was perceived by the 9-1-1 dispatcher that it had happened in the past.” The dispatcher asked Huerta’s sister if Huerta suffered from any physical or mental conditions, Soukup said, and she said no. “That’s why the information didn’t get relayed.”
However, police chatter that evening shows that officers had insight into Huerta’s mental state. Huerta’s mother told police that her son had drug problems and that she was considering having him committed. This car-to-car communication is not monitored by 9-1-1 dispatchers.
Duncan, who had been with the department 16 months and just completed the final independent phase of his field training, did not find the gun on Huerta during a pat-down and search.
Although Duncan heard “the sound of something rubbing against the plastic backseat area” of the patrol car on the way to headquarters, he chose not to stop and search Huerta more thoroughly because they were almost to the station.
And after shutting off his car to apprehend Huerta, Duncan did not reactivate the on-board video camera. As a result, there is no video documentation of Duncan’s search and transport of Huerta to police headquarters, where the boy shot himself while Duncan drove into the lot.
A medical examiner’s report concluded that Huerta was shot, with the bullet grazing his lower left lip and tongue, and then exiting through the left side of his skull. The bullet was found in the roof of the patrol car. It is unknown whether Huerta shot himself intentionally or accidentally.
Toxicology reports showed no alcohol in Huerta’s system.
Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez said Tuesday afternoon that, “the bottom line is, the officer didn’t find the gun,” during the frisk.
As for the recordings of the police chatter, Lopez said that the conversations don’t show that Officer Duncan thought Huerta was suicidal. “We arrest people with drug problems every day,” Lopez said, adding that doesn’t indicate someone has a mental disorder.
Officer Dakota Beck, who meanwhile, was arresting Huerta’s friend, Jaime Perez, is a Crisis Intervention Team officer. CIT officers receive additional training in dealing with suspects who may have mental illness.
The car-to-car recordings document the last minutes of Huerta’s life. Toward the end of the recording that is time-stamped 2:47 a.m., Duncan says tells dispatch:
“10-4. See you in a bit.”
Another officer asks: “Is he [Huerta] cooperative or not?”
“He’s cooperative,” Duncan replied. “A little tough, though.”