The curious case of Victor White: Suspicious death of a 22-year-old black man in police custody gets swept under the rug

No charges 2 years after White's death, supposedly by a self-inflicted gunshot, despite huge gaps in official story


Sean Illing
February 8, 2016 9:23PM (UTC)

Victor White died on March 3, 2014 in the back seat of a parked police cruiser. He was a 22-year old black man from New Iberia, Lousiana. After two years of investigations by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Lafayette, Louisiana as well as the state police and the FBI, no criminal charges have been filed. According to a report by the Advocate, there was insufficient evidence to “disprove the official account that Victor White III shot and killed himself while handcuffed in the back of a police car.”

The circumstances surrounding White's death invite suspicion. Although his case failed to garner national media attention, it's every bit as egregious as some of the other incidents involving police brutality and misconduct.

Advertisement:

On March 2, 2014, White and a friend visited a local convenience store, where they purchased cigars. There was a fight outside between two unidentified men, neither of whom had any connection to White. Minutes later White and his friend were stopped by Corp. Justin Ortis of the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office. A negligible amount of marijuana and cocaine was found in White's pocket, which led to his detainment on the scene.

White was handcuffed with his arms behind him and promptly placed in the back seat of the officer's car. Reports indicate that White was frisked twice for contraband and weapons during his arrest – no weapons were found during either search. When a second officer arrived, White was taken to the local station for questioning.

White never saw the inside of that station, however. He died of a gunshot wound while detained in the officer's vehicle. The Sheriff's Office insists to this day that White's death was self-inflicted. He became agitated and refused to leave the police cruiser, they say, and while the deputy sought help White is said to have produced a handgun (while handcuffed) and shot himself in the back.

The holes in this story are obvious. To begin with, how is it possible that White had a gun on his person after being thoroughly frisked twice? And then there are the contradictory reports filed by the police and the coroner's office. The police claim White shot himself in the back while the coroner's original report indicates White died of a gunshot wound to the chest. Although this inconsistency was never explained in any detail, White's death was nevertheless declared “self-inflicted.”

Not much more is known now that the investigations are complete. We know White was detained for a victimless non-crime and dead in the back of a police cruiser hours later. We know the official account is riddled with contradictions. We know the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office, as reported by the Advocate, has already “been subject to federal investigations of allegations of brutal treatment of those in its custody.” And we know there's no way White should have placed in the back of a police vehicle with a gun in his pocket.

Carol Powell Lexing, who represents the White family in an ongoing wrongful-death suit, rejected the outcome but said she wasn't at all surprised by the district attorney's findings. “It's typical,” she told the Advocate reporters by phone. In his only public statement on the matter, Rob Vines, the first assistant district attorney on the case, declared that “after a complete and thorough analysis of the facts and the evidence, there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt any violation of applicable Louisiana criminal statutes.”

Advertisement:

It's important to note that the Justice Department, the FBI and state and federal medical examiners all “agreed White's gunshot wound was self-inflicted.” And a statement given by Leonard White, Victor's brother, indicates that Victor White owned the same kind of gun that was found at the scene of his death.

None of this explains why Victor White managed to find himself handcuffed in the back seat of a police car with a pistol in his pocket, despite being searched twice previously. Or how he removed it from his pocket (presumably) and shot himself with his hands bound behind him (although the state produced a forensic pathologist who claims such a thing is possible). Or why the police report and the coroner's office didn't agree about the entry wound.

Advertisement:

In any event, now that state and federal investigations are closed, the case files will become public records. The family plans to employ independent experts to sift through the evidence and conduct their own investigation into White's death. Whatever the outcome of that investigation, it's clear that White's death was wholly unnecessary. He died in the custody of law enforcement, whether by his own hand or someone else's – that can't happen. A detained suspect is not supposed to be armed, and if it's true that White was in this case, the arresting officers are responsible for that.

The best case scenario here is that gross negligence led to Victor White's death. That no one will be held accountable for that is itself a crime. And it's all the more suspicious given the Iberia Sheriff's Office's documented history of abusing suspects in custody. In our current climate, with awareness of police misconduct at an all-time high, this story deserves much more attention.


Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

MORE FROM Sean Illing


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Criminal Justice Louisiana Police Brutality Politics News Victor White

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •