DA: No charges in Huerta’s death

Jan. 14, 2014 @ 06:03 PM

Durham County District Attorney Leon Stanback said Tuesday he won’t seek criminal charges in the death of Jesus Huerta, the teen who died of a gunshot wound in police custody.

Huerta, 17, was found dead in November while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser from what investigators said was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Police picked him up after family members reported him missing.

Stanback, in a rare press conference outside the Durham County Courthouse, said he had reviewed complete reports from the State Bureau of Investigation, chief medical examiner and the state crime lab, and physical evidence and forensic photographs pertaining to the teen’s death.

“[I have] found that there is not probable cause to charge a crime in Jesus Huerta’s death,” Stanback said in a press release he read to reporters.

He said Huerta died “of a close-range gunshot wound which grazed his lower lip and perforated his skull while in the custody of the Durham city police department.”

Stanback’s decision appears to close the door on possible criminal charges against police. But the Durham Police Department is still doing an internal investigation that could result in disciplinary action against Officer Samuel Duncan.

Meanwhile, Durham attorney Alex Charns, who represents the Huerta family, declined to comment on Stanback’s decision. But Charns faulted the SBI for what he said was a broken promise to consult the Huerta family “about what they might contribute before finishing its report.”

“The SBI failed to return a phone call about the investigation,” Charns said. “Would an SBI agent fail to return the phone call from the chief of police? Would an agent fail to ask the chief if he had anything to add to the report? Of course, what we had to say or ask may not have made any difference.”

Charns said he’s doing his own investigation.

“That is often the case in civil liberties and civil rights matters, particularly involving the police,” he said. “Years often go by before the truth is discovered.”

Stanback said his office planned to give a copy of the SBI findings to Charns on Tuesday afternoon.

“There was an investigative avenue that we wanted pursued,” Charns said in an email before he got the SBI report. “Until I see the report, I cannot know for certain whether this was done. It is something that we are investigating.”

Asked if the SBI report contained any surprises, Stanback said: “I can’t say there were any surprises. I can say it was very informative.” He declined to elaborate.

Stanback also was asked if he believed that Duncan acted appropriately.

“Well, you know, I have to leave that up to the Police Department,” he said. “They have their standards and procedures, but we didn’t find any violation of any criminal laws in what he did.”

Huerta’s shooting was the third Durham police officer-involved gunshot death last year. It has ignited demonstrations and calls for new leadership in the Police Department.

City Manager Tom Bonfield on Tuesday called on the Police Department to finish its internal affairs report "as quickly as possible," and said he would continue to work with City Council "to determine what aspects of the IA report should be made public to maintain confidence and trust in the Police Department."