Updated Saturday, 10/21/13 11:00 a.m.:
A vigil for a Durham 17-year-old who died in police custody turned violent on Thursday night when ranks of police officers dressed in riot gear clashed with a group of protesters.
Differing accounts of the encounter circled almost immediately after the crowd of more than 100 was dispersed from the edge of the Durham Police Department’s headquarters parking lot on South Duke Street.
Several people who attended the vigil said on Friday that they hadn’t seen anyone agitate a confrontation when officers wearing thick armor and helmets began lobbing tear gas to disperse them from the parking lot.
But Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez said officers gave multiple warnings for the crowd to disperse from the department’s parking lot. He said officers wanted to help family and gatherers pray peacefully when a small group within the crowd threw rocks and at least one bottle.
“Our officers showed remarkable restraint under very volatile conditions,” Lopez said Friday. “They were professional and well-trained.”
TRACING THE FACTS
The confrontation with police began shortly after Jesus Huerta, a student in Durham’s Riverside High School, died on Nov. 19 in the back of a police cruiser in the department’s parking lot. Investigators have said he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head and that his hands were cuffed behind his back.
Lopez said Friday that the State Bureau of Investigations, which is looking into the case, found gunpowder residue on gloves Huerta was wearing and none on Officer Samuel Duncan, who arrested Huerta and was taking him to the department. It is unclear how Huerta obtained a firearm while in custody.
Police initially did not release information on Huerta’s death because the case was being looked into by the state investigators, prompting family members and sympathizers to march to the police department on Nov. 22. The department’s building was vandalized and officers charged at least two people with holding a meeting while wearing a mask and failing to disperse.
Lopez said a small group of agitators took advantage of November’s and Thursday’s vigil to confront police. Six people were arrested on Thursday night on charges including carrying a concealed weapon (switchblade), trespassing, failure to disperse on command and resisting.
But Huerta’s family said on Friday afternoon that it was police officers who escalated an otherwise peaceful vigil, and that their right to peacefully congregate was violated.
"We have a right to put a vigil, to put a memory in my brother's behalf. We will not stand down. We will keep fighting. We will be there for him, and we will let no one disrespect my brother's memory," said Jesus’ sister Evelin Huerta.
The full circumstances of Huerta’s death are still unclear. The News & Observer has reported that he had been taken into custody after his mother, Sylvia Fernandez, asked one of her daughters to call 911 when her son left the family’s apartment on Durham’s Washington Street about 2 a.m. The 911 caller said Huerta had been using drugs and wanted police to pick him up for his own safety. Under a general order by the department, anyone taken into custody must be searched for weapons or contraband before being placed in a police car.
Evelin Huerta said on Friday that the family is still seeking to clarify the full circumstances of Jesus’ death.
“My brother's death is still a mystery,” she said. “Every time Chief Lopez says something, it brings out more questions in us.”
Our original story about the violence in Durham Thursday night, posted 12/20/13, 5 a.m:
A march to protest the death of a teen suspect in a patrol car ended with police lobbing tear gas and some protesters being arrested.
More than 150 people marched from downtown Durham to the police department Thursday night to protest the death of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta.
Police say Huerta shot himself in the head in the back of a patrol car after being arrested on second-degree trespassing charges on Nov. 19.
But Huerta's family and friends aren't convinced. Some protesters carried long black banners reading "Murdered By Police."
Police in riot gear threw some tear gas canisters at the crowd and made some arrests. Police say protesters threw firecrackers and at least one bottle.
Update 9:51 a.m, Friday 12/20.: Police Chief Jose Lopez is scheduled to speak to reporters at 10:30 a.m. today about Thursday’s protest and arrests.
WUNC's Laura Lee filmed this video at the protest: