The bullet that killed Denzel Curnell, who Charleston police officials thought killed himself Friday during an encounter with an officer, hit the 19-year-old in the right side of his head, an attorney for his family said.
With an exit wound on his head's left side, Curnell's injuries could be consistent with suicide, attorney Andy Savage said Tuesday after seeing the young man's body. The police found what they said was his gun at the scene.
The question that remains for Curnell's family, Savage said: Why would the left-handed man shoot himself in the right side of the head?
But any explanation about how Curnell died late Friday outside the Bridgeview Village apartments would be speculation, Savage acknowledged. Authorities again Tuesday offered no information to fill what Savage called a void that community members have filled with rumors. The county coroner has not deemed Curnell's death a suicide, homicide or an accident.
"There are a million basic questions that could be answered today," Savage said. "They owe the community an explanation."
The Charleston Police Department called state agents to investigate the death because of the neighborhood concerns it might spark, Chief Greg Mullen has said. Mullen couldn't explain the case further until the State Law Enforcement Division completes more of its investigation, he said.
After Capt. Naomi Broughton learned that night about the "encounter between a young man and a police officer," she knew there would be questions from community members, Mullen said in an interview Tuesday with The Post and Courier.
"If we hadn't called SLED, we would have been criticized," the chief said. "I just hope the people who know me, who know the Police Department, know we are trying to do the right thing."
Officer Jamal Medlin, a 2010 Clemson University graduate and former football player, remained on paid leave Tuesday, police spokesman Charles Francis said.
After playing football at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School, the 6-foot-6, 300-pound Medlin became an offensive tackle for the Tigers. He lettered on the team during his junior season in 2008, though never as a starter.
Medlin joined Charleston's police force in June 2011. After attending the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy, he became a member of the department's downtown Community Action Team, which works with residents and children in an effort to build trust, Mullen said.
He was working an off-duty job Friday when he came across Curnell, a 2013 graduate from Burke High School who recently completed basic training for the U.S. Army at Fort Benning, Ga.
During the encounter, Curnell was shot once on the street and died there. A police spokesman early Saturday told city leaders in an email that the case was being investigated as a "possible suicide."
Several residents, including Curnell's sister, Lonese Lang, reported seeing Medlin pointing a gun at her brother's lifeless body.
Beyond the fears Mullen expressed about community suspicion, officials would not say Tuesday what observations at the scene prompted them to call in SLED. On Monday, the chief and Mayor Joe Riley defended Medlin. Riley's office declined to comment Tuesday.
"There is no evidence that Officer Medlin discharged a weapon," Mullen said Monday during a news conference. "Curnell was armed at the time of this incident."
SLED spokesman Thom Berry declined to discuss specifics about why agents are asked to investigate under any circumstance.
To eliminate an impression of bias, it's customary for departments to ask for the help when its own officers are involved in a shooting, but no state law requires it.
"We were requested to become involved by the Charleston Police Department," Berry said in response to several questions Tuesday, "and we responded to that request."
Residents' suspicions, though, were raised within minutes of when the gunshot rang out around 10:30 p.m. Friday.
Dot Scott, president of the Charleston office of the NAACP, said she started getting calls 15 minutes later from people who questioned how officers were handling the scene. Apartment balconies and windows overlook the site.
"Something's not right," Scott said. "If (the police) were right, you would think they would be telling us everything that happened."
Savage, the family's attorney, has found himself in a different role than he has taken in past shootings involving officers. For more than 20 years, he said, Savage has defended officers who have fired their guns.
No official has said that Medlin fired any gun in Curnell's death.
But in those past cases, Savage said, SLED has handled nearly all aspects of the investigation. He faulted the Charleston police for processing the scene of Curnell's death for forensic evidence.
That move, which SLED agreed to, contributed to the perception of bias, he said.
"The first call you make is to SLED," Savage said. "You do that so there's no suspicion in the public that nothing inappropriate was done."
Two police cars cruised through Bridgeview Village on Tuesday.
Residents sat on the balconies and stood in the breezeways of the community on North Romney Street.
Three young men stood across the street from a memorial to Curnell. None of them would give their names, but at least one said he saw what happened Friday.
Asked why he didn't tell investigators, the man shook his head.
"Nobody here is going to talk to the police," he said.
Brian Hicks, Dave Munday and Aaron Brenner contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.