A prosecutor has told state investigators not to file charges against a police officer over the death of a 19-year-old man at a Charleston apartment, saying the evidence strongly suggests that the man shot himself.
9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson issued her findings in a Monday letter to the State Law Enforcement Division, which is investigating the June 20 death of Denzel Curnell. The shooting has divided the local African-American community for nearly a month after residents learned a Charleston police officer was trying to detain the young man at the time.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said the off-duty officer was working security for an apartment complex when he stopped Curnell on suspicion of trespassing. According to the police, the officer eventually pulled his handgun after Curnell repeatedly refused to take his hand out of his hoodie pocket. The two then got into a scuffle as the officer eventually forced Curnell to the ground.
But police say Curnell pulled a revolver out of his pocket and fired a shot at his own head as the officer moved to holster his weapon. The teen died before paramedics arrived, according to police.
The Charleston chapter of the NAACP criticized the Charleston Police Department, pointing to two unnamed witnesses who claimed the officer fired the fatal shot. Chief Mullen also refused to release a police report into the shooting, citing the ongoing investigation.
Wilson said a coroner’s report and other evidence contradicts those witnesses.
“The descriptions and characteristics of the gunshot wound documented by both EMS and the pathologist directly contradict these witnesses’ accounts,” Wilson wrote in her letter. “The witnesses’ statements are also not supported by the condition of Mr. Curnell’s revolver (which fired the fatal shot) or [the officer]’s pistol (which was not fired at all).”
Wilson wrote that gun residue was on Curnell’s hand, not the officer’s, implying Curnell fired the only shot that night. The report also said the head wound injuries were not consistent with a gunshot from behind.
The Charleston Post & Courier reported that Curnell had been discharged from the Army during basic training partially due to depression (his mother had died from cancer only months earlier). The Army said it had even placed the new trainee on suicide watch at one point. But family attorney Andy Savage said relatives did not notice any signs of mental or emotional turmoil on the day of his death. Wilson noted those suicidal tendencies in her letter.
“With the documented history of Mr. Curnell’s depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations, the unfortunate truth that he committed suicide during the encounter is apparent,” she wrote.
Shortly after the letter’s release Monday, Chief Mullen said he would work towards healing the division caused by the investigation. Mullen apologized for any mistakes he may have made in dealing with Curnell’s surviving relatives. “If I failed to adequately communicate with the right people in that family, then I apologize for that,” he said during Monday’s press conference. “And I will take that and learn from that if that’s the case.”
It is still not clear why Curnell was in the apartment complex that night.