Attorney Andy Savage has gone to bat for the police several times in his nearly four decades practicing law. But in the case of Denzel Curnell, who died of a gunshot wound June 20 while a Charleston police officer was present, Savage says he had to side with the family of the deceased and not with the officer. Investigators and the solicitor said Curnell's death was a suicide, but Savage wasn't convinced.
"I've been doing this for a long time, and I'm not saying I'm an expert, but it just doesn't feel right," Savage said Wednesday, before the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division had released its full investigative report.
The narrative being put forward by the coroner, the police department, and the solicitor's office starts with Curnell showing signs of depression and suicidal thoughts during his brief stint in Army basic training in the fall of 2013. Back home after being discharged, on the night of June 20, Curnell reportedly took a .38 Special revolver from his stepfather's bedside table, stashed it in the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt, and went to the Bridgeview Village apartments on North Romney Street, where his sister was meeting some friends and family.
A uniformed police officer, Jamal Medlin, was working an off-duty security job at Bridgeview that evening and saw Curnell walking through the apartment complex at a brisk pace while wearing all black. He approached Curnell, and after Curnell refused to take his right hand out of his pocket, Medlin drew his service pistol and pointed it at Curnell. At some point, while Curnell was lying with his belly on the asphalt and Medlin was reholstering his own weapon, Curnell pulled the revolver out of his pocket and shot himself in the head, according to Medlin's account.
Andy Savage has an alternative theory.
"The alternative theory could very well be that the officer, in an unconstitutional, impermissible manner, stopped this fellow, engaged in a physical confrontation with him — not once but twice, according to his own testimony — then who's to say that the officer did not engage in some physical force that resulted in an accidental shooting?" Savage says.
Two eyewitnesses said they saw Officer Medlin shoot Curnell from behind, but Savage says he finds that story "highly improbable." Officer Medlin reports that he stepped back and kept his weapon trained on Curnell after the shot was fired, so it is possible that witnesses saw this and assumed the officer had fired the shot. Forensic evidence showed that the fatal shot came from Curnell's weapon, not Medlin's, and the weapon was likely fired while in contact with Curnell's head, not at a distance as witnesses claimed.
Still, having spoken with Curnell's family, Savage says he remains unconvinced that the 19-year-old suffered from depression after dropping out of Army basic training in Fort Benning, Ga., in December. He says Curnell's mother died of cancer in January 2013, and following her death, Curnell may have had trouble adjusting to Army life and being away from home.
Back in Charleston, Savage says, Curnell's family saw no signs that he was depressed.
"SLED took his computer. SLED took all his documents. There's nothing in his computer or his personal writings that would indicate depression, attempted suicide, despondency, nothing," Savage says. "It's not just that there isn't a suicide note; there's no one of his friends or family being engaged in discussions about despair or depression."
On Friday, SLED released its full investigative file on the incident (click here to read the full report). While the report did mention that Curnell's laptop computer and smartphone had been taken as evidence, it included no details from either device that indicated Curnell was suicidal. In fact, it included no mention of what was found on either device.
At the time of this report, Savage had not yet commented on the SLED case file. But several details from the file raised questions about the suicide narrative being put forward by authorities. All along, Savage says Curnell's family didn't come to him looking for money from the city — just answers about what happened to their brother and son.
"I've never represented anyone but officers involved in police shootings," Savage says, "until now."
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson received a copy of SLED's report on July 8. On July 14, she wrote in a letter to a SLED special agent, "It is clear to me that Mr. Curnell committed suicide. The fact that Mr. Curnell suffered from depression and died in the prime of his life is nothing short of tragic." She wrote that her office would not seek any criminal charges against Officer Medlin in the case.
By Wilson's reckoning, forensic evidence was the clincher. Gunshot residue was found on Curnell's hands, not Officer Medlin's, and the only DNA samples that could be found on the revolver came from Curnell. Savage, having seen the same evidence, remained skeptical.
"Was the officer wearing his black gloves that night?" Savage says. "Oh, and by the way, when was the [gunshot residue] test taken, and by whom? And how much time was there in between? Certainly Denzel didn't have the ability to wash his hands or wipe his hands."
The following details from the SLED report either contradict Officer Medlin's narrative or otherwise raise questions about the suicide theory in explaining Curnell's death:
1. No signs of depression or suicidal thoughts since returning home. At Curnell's final Army counseling session on Dec. 2, 2013, a psychologist noted that he "showed a slight improvement in his emotional state and was removed from the suicide watch program." Back in Charleston, Curnell spoke on the phone with his brother Antonio every day while Antonio was in prison, and Antonio told police that Curnell had been training to re-enter the Army. Under the terms of his discharge, Curnell would have to wait six months before applying for re-enlistment, so June would have been the earliest month he could have applied.
However, some evidence from the SLED investigation indicates that Curnell's depression may have been deeper-rooted. On an initial counseling form filled out on the date of Curnell's enlistment, when asked if he had any personal problems that he would like to discuss, Curnell wrote, "Yes depression anyone." When asked to write a brief autobiography, he wrote, "I am usually quiet and will do what is told but will snap when the moment arises."
2. Witnesses say Curnell was not silent. One unsettling element of Officer Medlin's account is that, as he tells it, Curnell didn't say a word until he was about to pull the trigger. He writes that Curnell "acknowledged my presence" but that he had "a distant look on his face." But two witnesses say Curnell did not remain silent and that he actually questioned why he was being stopped.
"The officer said, 'Put your hand behind your back.' The kid replied back, 'Hold on, officer, what did I do?'" said one witness who was walking out of Building 127, the building nearest to the incident, at the time the shot was fired. "They went back and forth repeating these same quotes for a while. The officer finally got one of the kid['s] hand[s] loose and behind his back, then he asked the kid to put his other hand behind his back. The kid asked him again what did I do and that's when I heard the shot go off. I turned around, the officer shouted 'Oh shit, shots fired.'" A juvenile witness who was with her at the time also noted, ""I heard Nell [Curnell] say he didn't want to get hurt and he asked what's going on."
3. Witnesses say they saw Officer Medlin kick Curnell. In his account of the incident, Medlin writes that he used his body weight to subdue Curnell, but nowhere does he mention kicking Curnell. However, one adult and one juvenile witness say they saw Medlin kicking Curnell. "The kicks were like soccer kicks," said the juvenile witness.
4. The gun was under Curnell's body. The first EMS worker to arrive on the scene said that when he rolled Curnell over, he found the revolver was "under the patient originally." This adds a wrinkle to the already significant question of how a left-handed man lying on his stomach managed to pull a gun out from under himself and shoot himself using his right hand after an officer had just subdued him and was hovering over him.
"Do you really think that a guy with a cop jumping on his back is going to take a gun out and shoot himself with not his dominant hand?" Savage says.
An autopsy found that the gunshot entrance wound was on the right side of Curnell's head, 3/4 inch above and 1 1/4 inch in front of the right ear. The exit wound was on the left side of the forehead. An examiner described the path of the bullet as "from right to left, slightly upward, and slightly back to front."
5. There's a gap in the surveillance footage. The Bridgeview Village apartment complex uses five surveillance cameras mounted on buildings and utility poles, and one of them was pointed at the scene of the incident. SLED burned that footage onto a DVD, but it has a significant glitch.
The video shows Officer Medlin's car pulling up to the curb, and then it cuts to a moment when Medlin is outside of his car pointing his gun, just before backup officers arrive in more patrol vehicles. It apparently misses the entire struggle and the shooting. According to timestamps on the screen, the footage jumps straight from 10:29:20 p.m. to 10:32:12 p.m., a gap of about three minutes.
According to the SLED investigation, Bridgeview's property manager tried to call the company that installed the cameras to see if the footage could be restored, but she was told that they could not. When asked what could explain the gap in the footage, SLED Public Information Officer Thom Berry said, "The way their system works, the cameras are motion sensor-activated ... The recorder apparently runs for a certain amount of time and then stops."
Savage, who has taken on the case pro bono, says he is concerned that officers are being taught to stop people based on their clothing choices. In his report about the incident, Officer Medlin noted that Curnell was wearing all black and that he had a hooded sweatshirt pulled over his head on a summer night. Medlin said in his report he "found it odd" due to the warm temperature outside and wrote, "Also, through my experience, 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." Based on Curnell's clothing choices and what he described as the "brisk pace" at which Curnell walked, Officer Medlin followed Curnell in his car and then confronted him.
"I would like to see how many women are stopped in front of City Hall next January who are wearing miniskirts," Savage says. "I'm not so upset with the cop, Medlin. I'm more concerned with the culture at the Charleston Police Department that they apparently think that's just dandy and fine."
Overall, Savage says the case could have been handled better. He says Chief Greg Mullen didn't speak to Curnell's brother, sister, or stepfather following the incident. His clients, he says, are people "who have difficulty dealing with government processes." And the initial interaction between officer and citizen may have been a violation of the police department's own policies — particularly when Officer Medlin's gun came out.
According to the Charleston Police Department's Policy and Procedure Manual, officers are not allowed to remove their weapon from its holster unless they would be "reasonably justified in firing the weapon." The manual states:
Officers may remove their weapon form their holster and point the weapon if they reasonably believe that deadly force may become necessary. The officer is not required to wait until the threat becomes imminent before removing or pointing the weapon at a suspect ... Justification for the use of deadly force is based upon the "reasonable belief" of the officer. "Reasonable belief" is defined as "a belief based on the totality of the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time, which taken together with the reasonable inferences from those facts and circumstances, would cause a reasonable officer to think or act in a similar manner." Facts unknown to an officer, no matter how compelling, cannot be considered in later determining whether the shooting was justified.
Chief Mullen and Mayor Riley have spoken highly of Officer Medlin's conduct on the night of June 20. Mullen described Medlin as a "trooper" and said he would be returning to duty last week. But Savage says he does not think Officer Medlin gave a good explanation for why he drew a weapon on Denzel Curnell in the first place.
"He's not engaged in criminal activity. He had not been drinking. He had not been using drugs. There was no recent report of a car break-in or an identification of somebody fitting his description — there was nothing. He wasn't in a gang, he wasn't playing his radio loud, he wasn't doing anything," Savage says.
"We know [Officer Medlin] didn't have X-ray vision, and the legal stamp is he has to be able to articulate the basis for that reasonable suspicion."