Curnell's attorney questions police culture

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- The attorney for the family of a teenager who died at the Bridgeview Village Apartments last month questioned the culture of the city's police department after hearing the details of the shooting and the police chief's reaction.

On Monday, the solicitor said she had reviewed a lengthy State Law Enforcement Division report that concluded Denzell Curnell's death was a suicide. She announced she would not indict the officer present when Curnell died.

But the family's attorney Andy Savage said he was not satisfied.

"The family in their heart of hearts doesn't believe that he committed suicide," Savage said.

Savage said the teen was only depressed for a short time recently, after his mother died and when he was on his own at Army basic training.

In the near-month since Curnell died, no one from Charleston police had visited or spoken with the family, Savage said.

"If somebody had taken the time to go see them and say, 'We don't know what happened. What happened was a tragedy. We're going to investigate, follow every lead, explore every fact involved. This is the process. We'll keep you informed.' They didn't have to give details of the case. It's a matter of courtesy," Savage said.

"If I failed to adequately communicate with the right people in that family then I apologize for that," Chief Greg Mullen said in a news conference Monday.

Authorities said an off-duty officer was patrolling the Bridgeview Village Apartments when he saw Curnell loitering in June. According to the officer's statement, released by Savage, Curnell was wearing "long sleeves, long pants and a hoodie." The statement was written three days after the incident.

"It was not on the form or in the form of a typical witness, defendant or suspect statement, or even a personnel statement. It had been typed on plain paper. We don't know what independent facts were available to him at the time he made the statement. We don't know who helped him make that statement. We don't know the circumstances of that statement. It was a very self-serving statement, but certainly an eye opener as to why he thought he had to physically assault Denzell that night," Savage said.

The officer approached the teen and asked him to show his hands. At Monday's news conference, Mullen applauded the officer's action. Miller Shealy, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said the officer was within the law to approach the teen.

"If he had a reasonable suspicion to think a crime was afoot, he could stop the person, ask for an ID and pose a few questions," said Shealy, a professor at the Charleston School of Law.

But when the teen wouldn't show his hand, officials said the officer wrestled him to the ground. The fatal shot fired when they were on the ground. According to Mullen, the officer was "re holstering" his gun when Curnell shot himself.

The circumstance surrounding Curnell's detainment concerned Savage.

"There's no basis for that other than what the officer perceived as his clothing and perhaps his race," he said. "I question the culture of the police department, the thinking and the approval of the manager of the police department and officials who commented yesterday, that this is acceptable."

The South Carolina director of the American Civil Liberties Union called what the officer did "profiling." The ACLU is not involved in this particular case.

"It raises concerns about profiling. And we have nationwide and in our state and local communities too many examples of this happening," said Victoria Middleton.

As for the family members of the dead 19 year old, Savage said they never heard from police. And for the grieving family, Monday's public comment was not enough to ease their private pain.

Savage questioned the conclusiveness of the forensic evidence that authorities said proved Curnell killed himself. He said pathology reports showed Curnell had a cut on his right forearm when he died and hoped the SLED report would provide better explanation.

Savage expected to receive the full report by the end of the week, he said.