A Charleston policeman walked up to Denzel Curnell last month after he saw the young man wearing a hooded sweatshirt in 85-degree weather at the Bridgeview Village apartments.
It was part of Officer Jamal Medlin's job to make sure the 19-year-old belonged in the historically violent neighborhood, the police later said, and he saw Curnell's clothes as a sign of possible trouble.
But what happened next wasn't part of the plan and wasn't the result of any wrongdoing by the officer, the area's top prosecutor said Monday.
Curnell shot himself in the head as he lay on the ground during a struggle with Medlin, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said in deeming his death a "clear" suicide - a contention first raised that night but never explained by the police.
While city officials commended Medlin for his actions June 20, attorney Andy Savage renewed questions from Curnell's family about what led to the confrontation in the first place. The officer's own statement, which Savage provided to The Post and Courier on Monday, caused "concern about the conclusion that has been reached," he said.
"It's clear that Curnell was not involved in any nefarious activity," the attorney said. "There was no reason ... for the officer to have ever confronted Curnell."
But in Medlin's off-duty job providing security to the complex, Chief Greg Mullen said the officer needed to find out whether Curnell was allowed to be there or was "there to conduct some other type of activity that he wanted to prevent."
Curnell once lived in the community, and he still had friends there.
"There is a difference between what happens on a public street and what happens on private property," Mullen said during a news conference Monday. "Private property owners have the ability to set stricter standards for those people who are on their property."
Medlin was expected to return to work this week in light of the finding. The officer has been a "real trooper" during the ordeal, Mullen said.
In the three weeks since it started, Medlin has been the target of rumors in which residents accused him of firing the gunshot. Citing a State Law Enforcement Division probe, the police also denied The Post and Courier's requests under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act for documents that could have answered some questions.
Curnell's family, for example, wondered why the left-handed young man would shoot himself in the right side of his head.
But investigators said they found no sign that Medlin fired the gun, a revolver that Curnell had taken from his stepfather's house. They uncovered no gunshot residue on Medlin's hands, and the only DNA on the gun was Curnell's, Wilson said. The revolver was held up to his head, she added.
That evidence contradicted statements from three witnesses who said Medlin shot Curnell from a distance, the solicitor wrote in a letter to SLED agents.
"Officer Medlin's statement regarding his encounter with Mr. Curnell fits the independent facts and the forensic evidence," Wilson said. "The unfortunate truth that he committed suicide during the encounter is apparent."
Curnell's mother had died last year in the months before he graduated from Burke High School.
When he went to basic training for the Army later in the year, military officials noted that he was struggling with depression and was placed on suicide watch. The officials said he would sometimes "snap when the moment arises," according to Wilson.
He was eventually discharged.
His loved ones, though, said they noticed no signs of lingering depression by the night of his death.
Medlin was wearing his uniform and sitting in his patrol car around 10:30 p.m. near Building 112 when Curnell caught his eye.
The officer was one of many hired by the North Romney Street community's owners to provide extra security at the former public housing complex.
As he walked "at a brisk pace," Curnell was clad in all-black clothing, including the hooded sweatshirt, according to Medlin's written statement.
"I found it odd due to the fact ... that it was approximately 85 degrees, and the male figure was wearing long sleeves, long pants and a hoodie over his head," Medlin wrote. "I know that criminals will overdress for conditions when they are about to or have committed a crime because it is easier to conceal weapons and/or their identity."
Medlin drove around and found Curnell "lingering" behind Building 127, he wrote.
The officer got out of his car about 10 yards away from Curnell and said, "Hey man, can I holla at you?" Curnell acknowledged Medlin, but he had a "distant look on his face," the officer wrote, and his right hand was in his sweatshirt pocket.
"I immediately got a bad feeling, and was fearful about the situation," Medlin wrote. "Therefore, I withdrew my duty weapon (Glock 21), and pointed it toward the victim."
But Curnell continued to stare at Medlin. Even after he turned his back to the officer, Curnell kept his hand in his pocket, Medlin wrote.
Medlin then grabbed the back of Curnell's sweatshirt and tried to take him to his patrol car and check him for weapons, the officer said. But Curnell resisted, Medlin wrote, by facing the officer again, walking three yards away and dropping to his knees.
Medlin again grabbed Curnell's sweatshirt, but he pushed back.
"I used my body weight to push the victim to the ground, and I landed on top of him," the officer wrote. "At this point, I was kneeling over the victim, and he still had his right hand concealed in his hoodie pocket."
Curnell eventually followed the officer's orders by lying on his stomach. He stopped fighting back, Medlin wrote.
But as Medlin put his pistol back in its holster, he wrote, the officer heard Curnell curse and saw him move his right hand.
"I observed a flash and heard a loud bang," Medlin wrote. "I immediately jumped off (the) victim and covered down on him with my duty weapon."
That's when witnesses said they saw Medlin pointing his gun at Curnell.
Curnell bled on the pavement, but the officer was not hurt.
Savage, the attorney for Curnell's family, said he learned Monday that investigators had no video of the shooting. He also found that Curnell had no drugs or alcohol in his system.
But more information was needed, Savage said, to ease relatives' minds.
"There are questions that the Charleston Police Department is going to have to answer in terms of how it treats peaceful and law-abiding citizens of the community," he said.
Both Mullen and Mayor Joe Riley stood behind how Medlin handled the situation.
Mullen said officers who work at the apartment complex are expected to engage people. If a person keeps walking, the officer would have to let him go, Mullen said. But Curnell's refusal to remove his hand from his pocket escalated the situation, he said.
"(Medlin) felt that was potentially threatening," Mullen said.
An officer can attempt to question someone at any time, according to Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina.
But Black said more information was needed to analyze whether the officer should have stopped Curnell.
The police said Monday that the department was working on fulfilling public-records requests that had been denied. Those might fill the blanks.
"The officer can approach and talk to whomever he wants to," Black said. "Putting someone in custody, getting into a struggle - all those raise questions of force and local policy.
"We just don't have the facts we need."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.
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