A surveillance camera captured parts of what happened before and after 19-year-old Denzel Curnell died of a bullet wound last month in front of a Charleston police officer.
But a struggle between the two happened during a gap in the footage that investigators blamed on a motion-activated camera that had stopped recording, according to a report released Friday by the State Law Enforcement Division.
The video from the Bridgeview Village apartments showed Officer Jamal Medlin's car traveling up to Curnell at 10:29 p.m. June 20. But just as the cruiser stopped, the footage skipped to 10:32 p.m., when it showed the first backup officer arriving seconds after the gunfire.
It skipped Medlin walking up to Curnell. It skipped the officer's attempts to subdue the young man. It skipped when investigators said Curnell committed suicide while pinned to the pavement.
A video of the confrontation could have settled questions about why the officer had stopped Curnell. Medlin said he had suspected Curnell of criminal activity because of the hooded sweatshirt he was wearing in 85-degree heat.
The Post and Courier obtained the video and the 298-page SLED report Friday through requests under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. The Charleston Police Department also released public records this week that it had withheld during the probe.
The documents indicated how early evidence supported an initial theory that Curnell had committed suicide, even as authorities refused to release information about the case. But the reports also raised more questions.
In the surveillance footage, seconds-long gaps also were apparent before the break at the time of the shooting.
State experts later determined that the camera recorded only when it sensed motion. Its timer would freeze if the camera didn't pick up any action, the experts' report stated.
Why it works that way "was a question we have," SLED spokesman Thom Berry said Friday.
Why the camera shut off so abruptly also wasn't addressed in the SLED documents.
"Once it starts, it runs for a specified amount of time (without motion), then stops," Berry said. "Whenever there's sufficient motion in that field of view, it starts again. That's why it appears to be very jumpy video."
An attorney for Curnell's family said Friday that he had not thoroughly reviewed the SLED file. But Andy Savage's law firm planned to do its own investigation to "assess who, if anyone, should be held accountable or if this was solely Denzel's culpability," the attorney said.
Savage argued that much of the continuing suspicion around the case could have been avoided if the authorities hadn't withheld public information.
"We have serious concerns about the environment promoted by CPD management that appears not to give much of a priority to communications with its citizens," he said, "and may encourage unnecessary confrontation where confrontation is neither necessary or appropriate."
Gun in hand
Witnesses who talked with SLED investigators suspected that Medlin had shot Curnell from a few feet away, but none were sure about actually seeing the officer fire a gun.
Medlin drove up to Curnell, who was lingering outside an apartment building. It was part of Medlin's off-duty security job to make sure people like Curnell belong there.
The officer asked to talk with Curnell, but the man refused to take his hand out of his pocket, Medlin said in a written statement.
Medlin wasn't required to tell dispatchers that he was speaking with a possible criminal suspect because it was a "consensual encounter," the Police Department's spokesman later said.
Medlin tried to take Curnell into custody at gunpoint. The officer said he was holding Curnell down when the man shot himself in the head with a .38-caliber Armscor revolver he had taken from his stepfather's house.
After the single blast, Medlin jumped back and again pointed his own pistol.
"Shots fired. Bridgeview," he yelled into his radio. "Shots fired. Bridgeview."
Help arrived within seconds.
Firefighters saw that Curnell's head had been bleeding.
They rolled his lifeless body over to check for other injuries, according to some of the accounts, and two .38-caliber rounds fell from one of his pants pockets.
"We ... found the victim still holding a revolver-type handgun with his right hand," Charleston Fire Department Engineer Christopher Tennyson said in a statement.
About 150 residents and visitors soon gathered. Some were upset after they heard a gunshot and saw Medlin with a gun his hands.
Police commanders summoned more officers from other parts of the city.
Thirty-eight officers showed up. Three SLED agents also arrived.
The officers cordoned off the nearby apartment building and pushed back the onlookers. Some of them set out and found witnesses.
A 16-year-old girl told the SLED agents that she was standing on the street corner and talking with a friend when Medlin jumped out of his car and ordered Curnell at gunpoint to get on the ground.
The officer was patting down Curnell's clothing when she heard a bang and saw Medlin jump back, the teenager said. Her account differed from one given by the officer, who said he had asked Curnell for a chat.
But the girl told the agents that she hadn't seen a flash from the gun when it went off.
A 21-year-old visitor said she saw the initial struggle between the two and heard Curnell say that he didn't want to get hurt, the woman told the agents. Both of Curnell's hands were under his body, so Medlin yelled for him to put them behind his back, the witness said.
"Hold on, officer," Curnell said, according to the woman's statement. "What did I do? ... What did I do?"
Medlin had grabbed one of Curnell's arms by the time the woman heard the gunshot, she said. But she didn't know who had fired the weapon.
Two other witnesses told agents that Curnell had been shot with his back turned to the officer.
Medlin's statement concurred: He was lying on his stomach with the officer on top of him when he shot himself.
But one witness said Medlin was standing 3 feet away when the gunshot went off.
Some of the conflicting stories could have been settled with video.
Medlin drove one of the department's new Ford police cars, but it wasn't equipped with a camera.
But signs at the entrance to the former public housing project warn visitors about video surveillance. One of the cameras was pointed at the curbside where Curnell died.
Maintained by the owners of the North Romney Street complex, the cameras have been part of an effort to fight crime there, and police spokesman Charles Francis said officers can see the footage through a private network.
"We have worked with Bridgeview to have the capability to view video captured by their system through a virtual private network," he said.
Alerted to a news report of the shooting, a neighborhood property manager went to her office and checked for footage around 12:15 a.m., less than two hours after the incident, with three members of the Police Department.
That's when she and the officers found out about the gap, she told SLED in a written statement 10 days later.
The first part of the video depicted Medlin's car traveling on the wrong side of the road. It braked feet from someone dressed in black and standing still on the grass.
The clip featured a period from 10:22 p.m. to 10:40 p.m. Medlin first reported the shooting to dispatchers at 10:32 p.m.
"We were able to see when an officer ... approached a figure in black," the worker wrote. "The camera skipped time to 10:32 p.m. and we saw Officer Medlin standing near the rear of his car and other officers arriving."
At least one Charleston police officer documented an attempt to find surveillance video.
Senior Patrol Officer Kristy McFadden wrote in a supplemental incident report that she met with the complex manager but "was unable to obtain video," she stated in the paperwork.
No other officers wrote about any video in the city documents obtained this week.
Three days later, experts at the vendor that maintains the surveillance system told the complex employee that their attempts at finding the footage were fruitless.
'When the moment arises'
Without video, investigators relied on physical evidence taken from the scene to confirm what happened.
Early in the probe, SLED agents never indicated in their notes any suspicion that Medlin had fired a gun.
But the community's skepticism raged during the first week as the authorities remained silent about key details of the incident. During that time, Medlin added to his original statement to clarify that he had never fired a gun.
Other evidence that police officers and the agents gathered also started to confirm the initial report that Curnell had committed suicide.
But with witnesses being interviewed and more evidence being collected, the Police Department's spokesman said agency officials couldn't talk about the case. Police Chief Greg Mullen also said this week that SLED had given his department a "specific request" not to divulge any information.
"It was appropriate to not release preliminary information which could have changed or impacted the ability for SLED to complete a thorough and comprehensive investigation," Francis said. "We still support this position."
In that first week, SLED agents learned about Curnell's past in the military that could have helped explain sooner why he might have killed himself.
The Army paperwork revealed that he was depressed during basic training in Georgia late last year. He was on suicide watch before being discharged.
The SLED agents soon contacted Curnell's recruiter, who said he hadn't heard of any intention by the Burke High School graduate to return to the Army. They obtained paperwork indicating that Curnell was fighting emotional issues even as he enlisted last year. His own writing in those documents played into prosecutors' decision not to further investigate criminal charges in his death.
"I am usually quiet and will do what is told," Curnell wrote then, "but will snap when the moment arises."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.