Expert: Curnell death an accident

In a frame from an in-car police video, Charleston crime-scene investigators photograph the body of Denzel Curnell behind a yellow sheet after he died of what authorities said was a self-inflicted gunshot wound June 20 outside the Bridgeview Village apartments.

A renowned expert in forensic pathology who has reviewed the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. thinks a 19-year-old Charleston man died when his gun accidentally went off during a struggle with a city police officer.

Dr. Werner Spitz of Michigan, who has often faulted official autopsies and testified as a defense expert in high-profile murder trials, noted what looked like a 3-inch bruise on Denzel Curnell's right forearm in deeming the death an accident, according to an attorney for Curnell's family who hired him to review the autopsy.

Coupled with what he called shortcomings in collecting any gunshot residue or DNA on the officer, Charleston attorney Andy Savage said the outside opinion is further reason to question authorities' findings.

Investigators made few efforts to preserve evidence indicating whether the policeman's hands were near the gun when it went off, Savage said, and they did not test his uniform. The extent of such testing on police also has been a criticism of the probe into an 18-year-old man's shooting in Ferguson, Mo.

The developments came as local NAACP officials filed a written request for an independent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which is looking into the Missouri death. Charleston branch President Dot Scott said DOJ officials had not responded.

Authorities at every level of the Curnell probe started investigating with the premise that he had shot himself during a confrontation June 20 with Officer Jamal Medlin, according to documents obtained through the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. The theory was based on Medlin's oral statement to fellow officers.

But Savage said it tainted further fact-finding efforts by many investigators, including the Charleston officers who gathered forensic evidence and the former 10-year veteran of the city police force who oversaw the probe for the State Law Enforcement Division.

It also could have distracted a pathologist from explaining Curnell's arm injury found during an autopsy, Savage said. Medlin has said that Curnell kept his right hand in his pocket as they struggled and that it came out only when the young man pulled it out and quickly shot himself.

"It looks like the decision was made early on that it was a suicide, but the facts of Denzel's death just don't fit," Savage said. "My only intent is to help this family understand what happened."

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson cleared Medlin of criminal wrongdoing in mid-July.

Wilson said Friday that she wasn't privy to Spitz's full report and couldn't comment on it. She deferred questions to the Medical University Hospital pathologist who did the autopsy, Dr. Nicholas Batalis, who is barred under current law from talking about the report.

The Charleston Police Department has backed Medlin's actions in an ordeal that prompted a S.C. Senate review of any civil-rights problems with the agency's stop-and-frisk policies.

Though the death was believed to be a suicide from the start, police spokesman Charles Francis said the department took an extra step in asking SLED to get involved.

"Officer Medlin provided initial information to a supervisor on scene indicating Curnell had shot himself," Francis said. "Based on initial information indicating this was a suicide and knowing the circumstances would raise questions, the decision was made to request an independent investigation."

Medlin confronted Curnell around 10:30 p.m. outside the Bridgeview Village apartments. He thought Curnell's hooded sweatshirt and long pants looked suspicious in the summertime heat.

The officer ordered the young man at gunpoint to remove his right hand from his sweatshirt pocket. When Curnell refused, the officer who weighed twice as much as the suspect said that he grabbed the man's sweatshirt, but that Curnell managed to keep his hand pocketed.

In his written statement, Medlin said nothing about attempts to free Curnell's hand. The officer was kneeling on Curnell's back when Medlin said he looked away and heard the gunshot.

Curnell, who had been on suicide watch during Army basic training last year, had taken the revolver from his stepfather's house.

Before the autopsy, a deputy coroner told the pathologist that Curnell had shot himself. The doctor's report later mentioned small abrasions to Curnell's left eye and left knee and the "probable contusion" on Curnell's right arm, but the document did not delve into further details about the injuries. He ruled the death a suicide.

The family's attorney, Savage, said he asked Spitz whether the conclusion needed further inspection.

Spitz, now an 88-year-old college professor, has served as an expert trial witness in defense of Casey Anthony, a Florida mother acquitted of killing her toddler, and of music producer Phil Spector, who was convicted in the death of an actress Spector said had accidentally shot herself.

As an adviser to a congressional review committee in the 1970s, he faulted the autopsy in Kennedy's shooting but ultimately agreed with findings that the president's assassin had acted alone.

He also has helped police and prosecutors nationwide on death cases, including JonBenet Ramsey's.

As one of Savage's paid experts, Spitz found holes in the findings in Curnell's death.

But the attorney, who has worked on the case for free, said he would not be involved in any lawsuit against the city.

"There are still a lot of questions," he said. "We have a long way to go."

Missed evidence, Savage said, could have been crucial in verifying Medlin's account.

From the time they arrived about 20 minutes after the shooting, two Charleston police crime-scene investigators knew they would be looking into a suicide.

A sergeant told Rene Charles, a veteran technician who examined 17-year-old Marley Lion's slaying in West Ashley, that Curnell had shot himself, Charles wrote in a report. But Charles noted that SLED oversaw his work.

He and another technician had not collected any evidence until state agents showed up and agreed to their involvement, SLED spokesman Thom Berry said days after the death.

Charles reported that he later went to police headquarters, where he photographed Medlin and took samples from the officer's hands for GSR, the tiny particles a gun spews when it's fired. That happened at 1 a.m., two and a half hours after the shooting, the police said.

GSR isn't an exact science. Its presence doesn't necessarily mean that someone fired a gun, according to FBI publications. It can come off the hands if the person rubs them on a surface, washes them or sweats.

No GSR was found on Medlin's hands, but Savage questioned why they were not placed in bags to preserve any of the particles. The FBI also suggests that the testing be done at the scene.

But bagging isn't required, according to the police spokesman, and a supervisor watching Medlin didn't let him use the bathroom until the officer was turned over to SLED agents.

Police investigators also didn't take the officer's clothes, which could have been tested for GSR and for Curnell's DNA, because SLED didn't ask them to, the department spokesman said.

Department policy doesn't require GSR testing of a suspect's clothes, but it's often used in shooting investigations. Earlier this year, particles that city investigators found on a T-shirt in Tyrel Collins' home contributed to his conviction in the 2011 murder of Solomon Chisolm, one of the most feared drug dealers on Charleston's East Side.

SLED agents eventually took over the gathering of all evidence, including footage from a motion-activated camera that cut off just as Medlin drove up to Curnell. Jomar Albayalde, who had been a Charleston police officer from late 1997 to fall 2008, was assigned to be SLED's lead agent.

SLED likely wouldn't get a chance to explain why further testing wasn't done until next week, the agency's spokesman said.

"There's no evidence from the officer's clothing," Savage said. "There's nothing, and we don't know if there was anything because it wasn't preserved."

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