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Holding cell death of black Ala. teen ruled suicide, but questions remain

District Attorney says Kindra Chapman hanged herself with a sheet within 90 minutes of being detained

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Nine days after Kindra Darnell Chapman, an 18-year-old black woman, was found dead in a police holding cell in Homewood, Alabama, the district attorney’s office released preliminary findings that the death was a suicide. Despite that development, activists and Chapman’s family continued Thursday to question the circumstances of her death. 

At 6:22 p.m. on July 14, Chapman was arrested in Homewood, an affluent suburb of Birmingham, for allegedly stealing a cellphone. She was charged with first-degree robbery, a felony offense, and placed in a holding cell by Homewood police officers. According to local news site AL.com, the police last saw her alive at 6:30 p.m.

According to AL.com, police said she was found unresponsive, hanging by a bedsheet in a holding cell, at 7:50 p.m. Officers took her to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

On Thursday, Jefferson County District Attorney Brandon Falls released a statement that read, “At this time, I see no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the arrest and detention, and I believe that her death is the result of a suicide.”

According to the press release, his office has received reports from Homewood police officers and video from the night of Chapman’s death and has interviewed someone who was in custody at the jail when she died. He said there is no evidence on any of the videos that she was injured as she was transported or booked into the jail. He said video of her in the jail cell appears to show her agitated and attempting to “damage the contents of the cell.” According to him, the video later showed her taking her own life.

Falls said he will not release the videos of Chapman being booked into jail unless her family requests it.

Late Thursday afternoon, Homewood Police Chief Jim Roberson released a video statement in which he said that on July 14 th police responded to a call about an attempted robbery of a cell phone. Roberson said the victim identified Chapman, who was arrested and taken to Homewood jail.

"Ms. Chapman was booked, dressed out without incident, according to routine jail procedure," he said, adding that she was given the opportunity to call someone to make her bond but was unable to reach anyone.  She was then placed in a cell alone at 6:30 p.m. An officer discovered her dead in the cell over an hour later.

On Tuesday, Black Lives Matter staged a protest with about a dozen people outside the jail. Local activist and group member Mercutio Southall Sr. and five other activists were arrested and briefly detained. He said the holding cell where he was detained — one of two that he saw in the jail — had two cameras trained on it and was less than 5 feet from the processing office and along a heavily trafficked hallway leading to the department’s back door.

“We were never in there for three minutes without an officer passing by,” he said.

According to him, another activist in the cell, Mark Myles, was using his cellphone, and officers immediately showed up and took it away. While Southall was waiting in the holding cell, he said he could hear protesters in the processing office shouting “no justice, no peace.”

“We heard them. How could the officers not have heard [Chapman]? So how could they not hear the girl hanging herself, but we heard them? How could they not see the girl hanging herself?” he said.

According to Falls’ statement, Chapman was left alone in her cell while officers transported inmates from the jail to the Homewood Municipal Court for hearings.

Southall also questioned why — and even if — there was a sheet in her holding cell.

“The holding cell in Homewood — I am speaking from experience — it’s a cage with a metal bench. There’s no sheets. There’s no nothing.”

Lisa Sharlach, a Homewood resident and an associate professor of government at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said too many questions remain. “It doesn’t appear from the DA’s statement that anybody other than the legal personnel involved has seen the video.” Some of her friends who have been detained in the same cell question why there would be a sheet in a holding cell at all. “I don’t think these questions are going to be answered by the DA.” 

The Homewood Police did not respond to repeated calls from Al Jazeera for comment and clarification on the circumstances and whether it is standard for sheets to be in a holding cell.

According to AL.com, Chapman’s mother, Kathy Brady, said earlier this week that she believed the police killed her daughter. On Thursday the family released a statement saying, “We want the world to know what a wonderful soul she was. At the same time, we want the world to know that her death was a suicide. We have hired lawyers to investigate how this could have happened while she was in police custody.”

Juwaun King, 16, had been friends with Chapman since seventh grade. He said she was small, about 5 feet tall, and liked to play basketball. She came from a big family, he said, and liked to spend time with her brothers and sisters.

She was gay, and he said she was open about her sexuality. “When I first met her, she was out,” he said. “She was like, ‘I am gay. It is what it is.’” He said that when he heard of her death early Wednesday morning, he felt the official account felt made up. “The story, it’s not real to me. It doesn’t make sense, period. And I decided I have to speak up.”

According to King, she planned to go to college and was in a relationship with a woman who is pregnant, and Chapman was “very excited about the baby. Very,” he said. She had posted photos of herself and her girlfriend all over her Facebook page, including a picture of her girlfriend’s sonogram.

Chapman’s death came one day after Sandra Bland, a black woman from Illinois who was arrested in Texas, was found dead in a holding cell where she had been detained for three days after being arrested after a minor traffic violation. The medical examiner ruled her death a suicide by hanging, which her family disputes.

The deaths come amid increasing scrutiny over police treatment of black Americans after the deaths of several unarmed black people at the hands of police —including Michael BrownTamir Rice and Eric Garner — sparked nationwide protests. None of the officers involved in those cases have been charged.

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