Federal group looking at Huerta case

Dec. 27, 2013 @ 06:20 PM

A federal civil-rights board may be taking an interest in the Jesus Huerta case, judging from email one of its staffers sent Mayor Bill Bell earlier this week.

The initial message arrived Monday and indicated that the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Martin Castro, wanted to meet with Bell and was available for travel here late next week.

The purpose would be “to discuss the recent death of a Latino youth in police custody in Durham … and other examples of such incidences in minority communities,” Juana Silverio, special assistant and counsel to Castro, said in the initial message.

But Silverio followed up on Thursday with a second message saying Castro and commission Staff Director Marlene Sallo had “postponed the trip.”

She said she would be back in touch “as soon as they confirm new travel dates.”

Bell took that to mean he hasn’t heard the last of the meeting request. “Basically, they said they would reschedule,” he said Friday.

Confirmation of that wasn’t immediately forthcoming, however. “To our knowledge there is no such meeting,” commission spokeswoman Lenore Ostrowsky said.

The exchange followed reports by CNN and other national media outlets about the decision last week by Durham police to use tear gas to break up a pro-Huerta demonstration.

But the department has been on the spot since Nov. 19, when a handcuffed Huerta died of a gunshot wound in the back seat of a patrol car outside police headquarters. He was 17.

Police Chief Jose Lopez has said the wound was self-inflicted. That claim has met with skepticism from the Huerta family and other critics.

The family has called for a federal investigation of the Police Department, specifically by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights isn’t affiliated with the Department of Justice, and in point of fact doesn’t have any enforcement powers.

Set up in 1957, it’s basically a federal advisory board that exists to investigate and report to Congress and the president on policy matters. It sometimes also exerts pressure, albeit of the non-binding sort, on state and local governments.

In 2010, while under a Republican chairman, it prodded city leaders in Youngstown, Ohio, to change hiring policies for police and firefighters that appeared to favor blacks.

The then-chairman, Gerald Reynolds, was an opponent of affirmative action. Media reports out of Youngstown indicate that in 2011 the city in fact changed its hiring practices for police to eliminate the use of so-called dual hiring lists.

President Barack Obama appointed Castro to the commission early in 2011 and elevated him to the chairmanship that March.

Since then, the group and its part-time commissioners have taken on issues such as sexual assault in the military and, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, the rise of so-called “stand your ground” laws.

It is not clear what its objectives would be in the Huerta case. Silverio couldn’t be reached for comment.

Bell said the only contact he’d had with Silverio was by email. “You know as much as I know,” he said when asked what the commission might try to do.