Experts: Suicide of handcuffed man in squad car rare, but not unique

The State Police investigation and the full autopsy report on Victor White III, whose death while handcuffed in the back of a police car has been ruled a suicide by the Iberia Parish coroner, should provide more clarity into why the 22-year-old had a gun after he was searched and arrested, experts said Tuesday.

“It sounds like somebody missed a search, and it (the gun) was already in the car,” said Robert Pusins, a police procedure expert and member of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in Florida. Pusins also works as an expert court witness for plaintiffs and defendants in trials.

Pusins and Maranda Kres, a former death investigator in Florida, also said that while they’d never personally been involved in a case where a handcuffed suspect somehow kills himself, they have heard of such cases, which are rare.

There also are recent news accounts of handcuffed suspects shooting and killing themselves in police cars.

Police in Jonesboro, Arkansas, under scrutiny in 2012 after a suspect shot and killed himself while handcuffed, even put on a demonstration on how a handcuffed man can kill himself with a gun.

White was arrested March 2 following a fight in New Iberia. He was searched and handcuffed, then placed in a squad car for transport to the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office for processing. The arresting deputy found illegal drugs during the body search, but he didn’t find the weapon that police say White killed himself with.

State Police took over the investigation immediately after White’s death.

Master Trooper Brooks David said in an email Tuesday that detectives are “in the final stages with the report,” and that once they’re finished they’ll meet first with White’s family and show them the findings. After that, 16th Judicial District Attorney Phil Haney’s office will receive the report.

David declined comment on what the report will reveal, such as the caliber of the gun, whether the bullet that killed White was found, and deputies’ account of White’s state of mind when he was arrested.

A summary of the autopsy, released Monday by Dr. Carl Ditch, the Iberia Parish coroner, states that White’s death was a suicide, and that alcohol and marijuana were found in his body. In a move that hinted at the political sensitivity of the circumstances surrounding White’s death, Ditch also released a statement on why he issued a summary of the autopsy that found the death was a suicide.

“I think it’s telling that the ruling is suicide, and not accidental death,” said Kres, an anthropology professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and a former death investigator who worked at the medical examiner’s office in Sarasota, Florida.

Kres said the alcohol — which was at a 0.202 level, according to Ditch’s report — and marijuana found in his body may have factored into what happened.

“Both of them alter your perception,” she said. “They may have played a role in his thought process.”

Iberia Parish sheriff’s Capt. Ryan Turner said the Sheriff’s Office would not identify the arresting deputy. He also would not comment on if the arresting deputy was the same officer who searched White and found the drugs but not a gun, or if the deputy who drove White to the police station was the one who arrested him. Turner would not say if anybody had been placed on leave because of White’s death.

Pusins, the Florida procedural expert, said the deputy who drove White in for processing should have inspected the back seat before transporting the suspect.

“He has the responsibility to search the back seat after each and every transportation to make sure that a prisoner has not secreted contraband — drugs, weapons, anything — in the seat,” Pusins said.

Pusins said there are other safeguards the deputy could have taken, such as cinching the seat belt around the suspect tightly to keep his mobility at a minimum.

“You can ratchet those things,” Pusins said. “(White) should have been positioned where he could not get his hands out from behind him because he’s securely fastened by his seat belt.”