NEW IBERIA, La. -- The family of a Louisiana man who police say shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a squad car wants the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the case.
Victor White III, 22, of New Iberia, La., died on March 3 after being stopped by police officers responding to a report of a fight at a nearby gas station, attorneys for White's family said.
After police searched and found drugs on White, the young man was handcuffed with his arms behind his back and placed in the back of a police car. According to the Iberia Parish coroner, White then shot himself in the chest, committing suicide. However, White's family is adamant that he could not and would not have killed himself.
'There's no way they can convince me, no matter what they say,' said Rev. Victor White II, White's father. 'He had too much going for him. We had just spoken that morning. He was getting ready to buy a vehicle. He was also getting ready to move into his apartment. He had his girlfriend, his child. He was planning to get into school so he could better himself.'
Monday, White, his wife, Vanessa, and their attorneys, Carol Powell Lexing and Benjamin Crump, called on the federal government to look into the death as well as the coroner's ruling that White could not have died from anything other than a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Crump, who also represents the family of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, said White's death is not the first questionable case of a man reportedly committing suicide while handcuffed by police officers. He pointed to the deaths of Chavis Carter, 21, in Jonesboro, Ark. in 2012 and Jesus Huerta, 17, in Durham, N.C. last year.
'It's highly suspicious,' Crump said. 'We have a terrible recent trend that is occurring across state lines that finds these 'Houdini handcuff' suicides while they are in the custody of police that defies all logic, all common sense.'
Louisiana State Police initially said in a statement that White had shot himself in the back, according to NBC News. However, the coroner's report, obtained first by NBC months later, showed that White was shot in the front just under his right nipple.
The events leading to White's death began around 11 p.m. on March 2 when White and a friend bought $10 worth of marijuana and then stopped by Hop-In, a gas station a few blocks away, according to NBC. There, two men got into a fight while White and his friend looked on. By 11:30 p.m., an officer with the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office was responding to a report of the fight and stopped White and his friend.
An officer later searched White and found marijuana and cocaine on him, NBC reports. According to a police statement obtained by the network, Victor White III 'was taken into custody, handcuffed behind his back, and transported to the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office for processing. Once at the Sheriff's Office, White became uncooperative and refused to exit the deputy's patrol vehicle. As the deputy requested assistance from other deputies, White produced a handgun and fired one round striking himself in the back.'
White's parents say the young man did not own a gun.
Carl Ditch, Iberia Parish Coroner, made the suicide ruling after reviewing the autopsy report, testing for gunpowder residue and reviewing statements by police officers at the scene, according to a letter signed by Ditch and dated March 3.
'Based on Mr. White's statements to police officers immediately prior to discharge of the firearm, and combined with all other investigational facts, every other manner of death is ruled out and the manner of death in this matter is determined to be suicide,' Ditch wrote in the letter.
Ditch added this month in a statement that it was possible for White 'due to his body habitus', or physique, to manipulate the gun to shoot himself in the chest, according to NBC.
However, Victor White II says when he saw his son's body just hours after his death, he looked like he had been beaten up. 'The left side of his face was swollen and looked distressed,' the father said.
When he asked the coroner about the bruises, White said he was told that due to a pending investigation no information could be provided.
The coroner's report says White had two abrasions on his left eye. The family is hoping a federal investigation will lead to further details about those wounds.
Louisiana State Police and the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office did not respond to requests by USA TODAY to comment on the case.
Powell Lexing, a civil rights attorney, said the family is waiting for Louisiana State Police to finish their investigation into White's death so they can have an independent pathologist review the case and perform his own autopsy. The attorney said she is requesting a long list of items including ballistic reports, x-rays of White's body, White's clothing from the day he died and statements from officers from that night.
'We are calling for the federal government to get involved and investigate this matter independent of the state officials and certainly independent of the local officials,' she said. 'We are going to continue to move forward to make sure the family receives justice.'
Meanwhile, White's mother said she is trying to hold onto memories of her son who used to text her every morning and evening. She struggles to even talk about her son's death being ruled a suicide as her frustration mounts.
'He was my baby boy,' Vanessa White said. 'It's devastating.'
She and her husband say they want answers for themselves, their other children and White's now 1-year-old daughter.
'We want the truth to come out,' Victor White II said. 'My son was vibrant. He was energetic. He had a lot going for him and he was full of life...We miss him even more now.'