Nearly two months after the September riots in uptown Charlotte, witnesses, family members and others remain uncertain about who killed protester Justin Carr.
His death is at the center of competing narratives that emerged from the chaos of Sept. 21 about the nature and timing of the police response. Within seconds of the shooting, a rumor ripped through the streets – first by shouts, then by social media – that Carr had been gunned down by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police.
Witnesses on Trade Street that night told the Observer that Carr fell while riot police were firing rubber bullets and other munitions into the crowd.
CMPD has said from the beginning that the fatal gunshot did not come from them, and two days after Carr was killed they arrested Rayquan Borum and charged him with first-degree murder.
From all accounts, Carr’s death accelerated the pace of street violence that followed the police shooting a day earlier of Keith Lamont Scott in University City.
Court records show the path that police took to identify Borum, including examination of video from uptown that CMPD says shows Borum apparently firing one shot that night, then fleeing while still carrying a handgun. They also say they later seized a handgun and a spent .38-caliber cartridge during a later search of Borum’s home.
Borum’s attorney, Terry Sherrill, acknowledges that his client fired a shot that night. But Sherrill disputes that it hit Carr.
Corine Mack, president of Charlotte branch of the NAACP, and others have called for an independent investigation into Carr’s death.
“We need to clear up what happened,” Mack said. “There are too many people saying that it was different than what police said. I am deeply concerned.”
An autopsy is expected to show what killed Carr. The N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has not yet released the autopsy report. It can take months for the office to finish reports.
In the meantime, Vivian Carr, the dead man’s mother, said she wants to view surveillance video of her son’s shooting. She said police keep telling the family that “the video is not ready.”
Carr and Borum
Carr and Borum apparently did not know each other. But they both wound up near Trade and College on the night of Sept. 21 to protest the police shooting from the day before.
Carr, 26, was active in sports growing up, had graduated from Kennedy Charter School in Charlotte in 2007, and was to become a father in October.
He had gone to uptown to be a “silent protester,” said his cousin, Adam Byrd. Family members said he felt compelled to demonstrate against police shootings in part because of his grandmother’s social activism: She marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Vivian Carr told the Observer that her son often talked about joining protests, but the night of Sept. 21 was his first. She says he called her 20 minutes before the shooting to see if she would join him.
Borum, 21, has a criminal past. He served about three months in prison on larceny and breaking and entering charges in Mecklenburg County in 2012, has two pending weapons charges in Cabarrus County and is wanted in Georgia on a probation violation arising from an earlier drug arrest.
Sherrill said his client went to participate in the protests because he was upset about the Scott shooting and other killings of African Americans by police.
Heard a grenade
One witness says he believes Carr fell when police fired a concussive device to move protesters away from the Omni hotel at about 8:30 p.m.
Jimmy Tyson, 31, is experienced in the chaos of street protests. He acts as a volunteer “street medic” offering first aid to anyone injured, dehydrated or otherwise stricken during demonstrations.
Tyson, a carpenter who runs a Mecklenburg sawmill and is trained in acute first aid, has participated with Occupy Charlotte, Moral Monday demonstrations in Raleigh and Charlotte Environmental Action for the last six years.
On Sept. 21, Tyson said, he was at the EpiCentre with demonstrators and remembers seeing riot police at the Omni on Trade Street. They appeared to be firing what he took to be concussion grenades, a flash grenade and what he believed to be rubber bullets to move people away from the front of the hotel.
Tyson recalls hearing people shout, “They shot him, Medic! Medic!”
Tyson said he went over to help. A small crowd surrounded Carr, who was illuminated by bystanders’ cell phones.
A man was kneeling beside Carr, applying pressure with a T-shirt to a wound on the left side of Carr’s head.
“I heard Justin mutter some words and his eyes rolled back,” Tyson said.
On the nature of Carr’s wound, Tyson said: “If someone is shot in the head, you expect to see a hole. What I saw was more like a wound.” Carr was bleeding profusely, Tyson said.
“I thought at the time the wound resulted from a rubber bullet originating from the police line, but upon further consideration, it could have easily been a piece of shrapnel from the concussion grenade.”
Charlotte Mecklenburg police say investigators identified Borum through surveillance cameras.
An affidavit from a search warrant says video footage shows a suspect wearing a white T-shirt and dark pants appearing to fire one gunshot. The person then runs away, appearing to hold a handgun.
About 45 minutes after the shooting, prosecutors have said, surveillance cameras caught Borum breaking into the nearby Kandy Bar night club, jumping the bar and stealing liquor bottles.
On Sept. 23, police arrested Borum at his home, where they seized a handgun, the spent shell, two rifles, a white T-shirt and other items, the affidavit said. A Mecklenburg County grand jury voted 18-0 to indict Borum on first-degree murder.
Police would not release the videos.
At a court hearing in September, Assistant District Attorney Clayton Jones said that Borum admitted to shooting Carr. Sherrill, Borum’s attorney, disputes that.
Prosecutors have given him a summary of the statement Borum made to investigators. Borum only acknowledged firing a gunshot into the air, Sherrill said.
“It’s not a confession to me,” Sherrill said. “It doesn’t say he shot at anybody or that he shot anybody.”
Sherrill said he has talked with people who were there when Carr was wounded. He was told there were multiple gunshots fired around the time.
“It was just a very hectic situation that night,” Sherrill said. “Mr. Borum was not the only person who fired a gun. It was just so much commotion out there.”
Tear gas at Omni
According to the city’s account of the police response, CMPD used tear gas and other force only in the face of vandalism, looting and assaults on officers.
Police say that in the last minutes before the Carr shooting, CMPD discussed using tear gas against violent demonstrators but decided not to out of concern for innocent bystanders, according to court documents filed by CMPD and the city.
They say police were targeted with water and liquor bottles, rocks and other debris for almost an hour before they used smoke grenades and tear gas to break up the crowds. The use of those munitions followed a series of dispersal warnings at varying intervals using what police call a “long range acoustic device,” documents say.
The department, however, has denied using rubber bullets to disperse crowds the night Carr was shot, though they acknowledged in recent court filings the rumor that officers killed Carr still persists.
Asked in September whether police rubber bullets hit Carr, police Chief Kerr Putney said “We have a lot of compelling evidence that disputes that.”
But some bystanders that night insist police shot rubber bullets at the crowd.
Najah McEntire of Charlotte told the Observer she watched an officer with a blonde ponytail take aim and fired four rubber bullets that landed within inches of her feet. “I thought, ‘Damn, that chick is good. I’d like her to go to the shooting range with me.’ ”
Others describe a similar scene in affidavits from a lawsuit brought by eight residents who allege officers used excessive force.
Jamie Marsicano attended a rally at Marshall Park, then moved with other demonstrators west on Trade Street into uptown. Riot police, Marsicano said, were out in front of the Omni.
“The police began tear gassing us again, and shot rubber bullets at our legs,” Marsicano said. “One of the rubber bullets hit a man, Justin Carr, in the head.”
The Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice, composed of ministers and other faith leaders, sent 40 people to the demonstrations. Nearly a dozen members, walked with protesters after attending the rally at Marshall Park.
As the crowd walked up Trade Street shortly after 8 p.m., two members said, they encountered police in riot gear. The mood turned tense.
To that point, protesters had paid little attention to police, but followed officers in riot gear to the Omni, said Robin Tanner, a member of the Clergy Coalition and a minister at Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church in northeast Charlotte.
Tanner told the Observer that she saw an officer strike a peaceful protester with a baton. And then without warning, Tanner said, police began using tear gas.
Tanner said she did not see who shot Justin Carr. But she said police actions created chaos before he was fatally wounded.
“We need a full admitting of the truth, a full apology,” Tanner said. “There has not yet been accountability.”
CMPD did not answer questions from the Observer about the events surrounding Carr’s shooting. But spokesman Rob Tufano sent a written statement, saying an independent research group will analyze CMPD’s handling of the protests and its relationship with the public.
For now, Vivian Carr, Justin Carr’s mother, remains uncertain about how her son died.
Borum’s arrest brought some relief, but raised other questions, Carr said. She wonders what provoked the shooting. And she questions if the police response to the protests contributed to the violence.
Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027