SBI, attorney clash over Huerta investigation

Jan. 15, 2014 @ 06:04 PM

The State Bureau of Investigation is defending how it handled its inquiry in the death of Jesus Huerta following criticism of the agency by an attorney who represents the teen’s family.
In a statement Tuesday, Durham attorney Alex Charns said the SBI broke its promise to consult the family of Huerta, who died in November in Durham police custody, before completing its report.
The SBI disputed that Wednesday.
“During the course of their investigation, SBI agents met with family members in person and spoke with them by telephone on a number of occasions,” Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, said in an email.
At the first meeting, she said, SBI agents “explained that the SBI’s role in the case was to gather evidence to help determine whether or not [Durham police] Officer Samuel Duncan was criminally liable for Mr. Huerta’s death and that the investigation would be turned over to the district attorney, who would decide whether criminal charges were warranted.”
SBI agents completed their investigation and met Jan. 2 with the Durham County District Attorney’s Office to share their findings, Talley said.
At a press conference Tuesday, District Attorney Leon Stanback said that after reviewing the SBI findings and other evidence, he determined no criminal charges are warranted. Following Stanback’s decision, Talley said, the SBI notified the district attorney’s office that SBI agents are available to meet with the Huerta family along with those from the DA’s office if asked to do so.
Charns said Wednesday he is heartened by that response.
“We have an item, an area of inquiry, upon which we will ask the SBI to follow up,” Charns said. “It is an investigative avenue that we want pursued. We look forward to working with the SBI in furtherance of this additional investigation.”
Charns did not specify what the investigative area is. 
In his Tuesday email, Charns said the SBI failed to return a phone call from him about the investigation, and asked: “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?”
Charns said he is conducting his own investigation. He said Wednesday he has not received a copy of the SBI report.
Stanback said Tuesday the SBI report would be “made available” to Charns, but Charns said “it has not been determined what ‘access’ we will have.”
The district attorney closed the door Tuesday to criminal charges against police in Huerta’s death, but the Durham Police Department is still conducting an internal investigation that could result in Officer Duncan being disciplined.
Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield called Tuesday on the Police Department to complete its report “as quickly as possible.”
Huerta, 17, was found dead in November while handcuffed in the back of a police car. Police said he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. They had picked him up after family members reported him missing.
This is the third incident in which officers’ roles have been questioned. There were two officer-involved shootings earlier this year, in addition to Huerta’s death while in police custody. It has ignited demonstrations and calls for new leadership in the Police Department.
A prayer vigil to honor Huerta’s life will be held at 6:45 p.m. Sunday at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church at 810 W. Chapel Hill St.