Victor White III
KLFY Screenshot

A name has been given to the recently publicized rash of alleged gunshot “suicides” by young men of color who were handcuffed and in police custody: Houdini handcuff suicides. The moniker is an homage to the famed magician Harry Houdini, who staged jail escapes in shackles.

It also highlights the puzzling circumstances under which Victor White III, Chavis Carter and Jesus Huerta died in separate incidents, in different cities, within the past 26 months. In each case, police had searched the young men for weapons, and none had initially been found. Also, in each case the local coroner said that the victim had taken his own life.

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In the case of 22-year-old White, he was apparently handcuffed behind his back, but a recent Louisiana coroner’s report cites a fatal shot in the chest by his own hands.

Attorney Benjamin Crump, who is representing the families of White and Carter, began using the term in hopes of drawing attention to the cases. “These Houdini handcuff shootings, it’s just mystifying they are trying to say the cause of death is suicide. It defies all logic, common sense or science,” he said in a joint interview for The Root with another attorney for the White family, Carol Powell-Lexing.

“What attorney Powell-Lexing and I have been trying to do is to get people to look at this trend and say it’s not just a Louisiana issue, because it happened to Victor White in 2014; it’s not just a North Carolina issue, because it happened to Jesus Huerta in 2013; and it’s not just an Arkansas issue, because it happened to Chavis Carter in 2012. … This is a national issue.”

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To that end, on Monday Crump and Powell-Lexing called for a federal investigation into these types of deaths in police custody nationwide. “Some of the coroners are pretty much working hand in hand with law enforcement, so it’s imperative that we get outside, independent people to come in and investigate these Houdini handcuff types of cases, where the coroners are labeling these types of deaths as suicides, instead of what they really are, and that would be homicides,” says Powell-Lexing. Without that homicide ruling, further investigations into such cases won’t go forward.

“It’s really on the front lines of innovative, strategic jurisprudence,” Crump says of their request to the Department of Justice. They aim to show a multistate pattern of practice indicating that coroners are conspiring with local law enforcement to cover up homicides in police custody. 

On Tuesday the Department of Justice responded by saying it would look into White’s death. “FBI agents, along with attorneys from my office and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, will carefully review the results of the current investigation by the Louisiana State Police; will determine what additional investigation, if any, is necessary to determine who fired the fatal shot; and whether the evidence demonstrates a willful civil rights violation,” said Stephanie Finley, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, in a written statement.

“I know my son didn’t commit suicide. There’s no way you can convince me that he committed suicide,” the Rev. Victor White II told The Root. In their last conversation, his son sounded optimistic, says White, and spoke of plans to learn welding so that he could take better care of his family.

The newly opened federal investigation might bring the justice Victor White II seeks. But can the family’s attorneys succeed in their quest to get the Justice Department to investigate the deaths as a group?

Technically it would be difficult, according to Vincent Southerland, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The difficulty in prosecuting these incidents in different states is that you’re not going after one particular police department or law-enforcement agency. [Typically], you’re going after separate departments and separate agencies,” he told The Root.

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To group the cases together “rubs up against the confines of the statutory authority that the Department of Justice has at its disposal,” Southerland explained.

However, he added, “There’s certainly something to be said for going after each of these individual police departments and officers, investigating all the facts and circumstances of each incident, and to the extent that there are similarities, holding them up as examples of really endemic problems that need to be dealt with.”

Meanwhile, Victor White III’s family hopes that the gambit being played by Crump and Powell-Lexing will help them get the justice they seek. “Hopefully it’s not an epidemic,” said White’s father of the deaths in police handcuffs. “I really believe that the work that they’re doing will shed light on [such cases] across the nation.”

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Sheryl Huggins Salomon is senior editor-at-large of The Root and a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based editorial consultant. Follow her on Twitter.