Joe Songer / AL.COM / Landov

At a vigil for Kindra Chapman, questions remain about her death

Mourners gathered to demand justice for the Alabama teen who died in a police holding cell

HOMEWOOD, Alabama — Around 100 people gathered Sunday evening for a vigil at a municipal park to mourn Kindra Chapman, who was found dead in police holding cell on July 14. Members of the community hugged close in a semi-circle, holding birthday candles in small paper cups, chanting “Say her name — Kindra!” and “No justice, no peace!”

Kindra Chapman
Via Facebook

Linda Chapman, Kindra's grandmother spoke of her love for her granddaughter as the crowd raised candles in silence. “I loved Kindra Chapman from the bottom of my heart, and I want some justice for Kindra Chapman. We did not say Kindra Chapman, suicide.”

Chapman's voice faltered as she pronounced “suicide.”

Chapman told the crowd that she has not watched videos from the police station in the Birmingham suburbs and does not believe that her granddaughter killed herself. “She wouldn’t do that,” Chapman said. “So that's all we have to say. We want justice for her.”

Since Kindra Chapman was found dead in a Homewood Police Department holding cell on July 14, members of her family and local activists have questioned whether the 18-year-old's death was a suicide. According to Alabama law Chapman was considered a minor because she was under 19.

Chapman's death in jail came one day after Sandra Bland was found dead in a holding cell in Waller County, Texas, where she had been detained for three days after being arrested after being pulled over for a traffic violation. The medical examiner ruled Bland's death a suicide by hanging, which her family disputes.

The deaths of Chapman and Bland come amid increasing scrutiny over police treatment of black Americans after the deaths of several unarmed black people at the hands of police or while in police custody —including Michael BrownTamir RiceEric Garner and Freddie Gray — sparked nationwide protests. 

According to a video-statement released on July 23 by Homewood Police Chief Jim Roberson Chapman was arrested on June14 for the attempted robbery of a cell phone. She arrived at the city jail at 6:14 p.m. and was booked and placed in a cell alone by 6:30 p.m.

Roberson said officers discovered Chapman dead in the cell at 7:42 p.m. According to the District Attorney Brandon Falls officers were transporting inmates from the municipal court to the jail during the time Chapman was left unobserved.

On Saturday, Homewood police released surveillance footage of Chapman being brought to the city jail.

Many questions

For Hank Sherrod, a civil rights lawyer in Florence, Alabama, who has pursued several cases of wrongful death in custody, the police chief's video statement raises significant questions.

“It's about what do [the police] know. What did you know that led you to put her in a video-monitoring cell?” Sherrod said in an interview with Al Jazeera on Sunday, adding that almost all jails have some form of intake questionnaire, in which each person is asked about their emotional state and past suicide attempts. As of now, while it is not known if Chapman filled out the intake questionnaire, Sherrod questions why she was left unmonitored.

“What is the point of putting a camera in [the cell] if no one is going to look at it?,” he asked. “Do the duties of the correction officers require them to monitor the video?”

Sherrod is unaware of the Homewood jail's protocol but said that leaving an inmate unmonitored for over an hour would break protocol in many other jurisdictions in Alabama. An inmate on suicide watch would typically be monitored every 15 minutes and in some jurisdictions, as often as every five minutes, he said.

“What this is really about is the failure to protect a vulnerable person who couldn’t protect herself,” Sherrod said. “These deaths are not new. We are suddenly getting videos of it, and we are being forced to look at situations that we have not looked at before, … how easily we can lose people in the criminal justice system.”

The Homewood Police say they have turned over video surveillance from the time Chapman arrived at the jail to the Jefferson County District Attorney. Falls released a statement on July 23 that according to their preliminary investigation, “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.”

The coroner's office is expected to release Chapman's autopsy and toxicology reports this week.

‘What this is really about is the failure to protect a vulnerable person who couldn’t protect herself.’

Hank Sherrod

Civil rights lawyer

Last week, attorneys hired by Chapman's mother, Kathy Brady, released a statement saying that the family believes the death was a suicide but that they plan “to investigate how this could have happened while she was in police custody.” This differs from what Chapman’s grandmother and father have said publicly.

As the park grew dark on Sunday night, organizers from Operation I Am, a local social justice activist group, led the crowd in a call-and-response chant of “Say her name — Kindra!” and slowly blew out dozens of candles set on picnic tables.

The thick summer air caught the sent of barbecue being sold at the entrance. Streetlights came on one-by-one on across the park, and the crowd of mourners stood for a moment in silence, except for the shrill whir of crickets.

Chapman's vigil drew representatives from many grassroots organizations, such Black Lives Matter and Southerners on New Ground, an LGBTQ activist group that attended because Chapman was gay.

Latasha Tony, 30, came from Birmingham to support the Chapman family. Tony says her elder brother died in 1996, after officers at a Birmingham jail ignored his request for water, and he slipped into a coma and died later at the hospital. He was 16 years old.

“I didn't think about [what happened to my brother] until recently. This has been going on for years,” Tony said. “I feel like it's a disgrace to the justice system. There should be more things in place to prevent these kind of things from happening.”

As the crowd slowly dispersed, a group of three women discussed their fears that their young daughters could face fates similar to those of Chapman and Bland.

“I don't want to have to worry about if this is going to be my child next,” said Shirah Robinson as her two-and-a-half year old daughter played near her feet. “I am a mother. I grieve because I know what it is like to live in a system of injustice.

“I understand the unequal distribution of rights, the unequal distribution of wealth and privileges,” she said. “I want her to grow up and not have to worry about that.”

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