An Autopsy Appears to Contradict the Durham Police Department’s Account of How Frank Clark Died | Durham County | Indy Week

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An Autopsy Appears to Contradict the Durham Police Department’s Account of How Frank Clark Died

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The sun is shining, but it's a cool November afternoon, 55 degrees, so he's dressed in layers: a black insulated vest over a yellow thermal over a white T-shirt, jeans over shorts over boxer briefs. His closely shaved head is covered by a ball cap. He has $26 and a pair of brass knuckles in his pocket. The pack of Newports tucked away in his jeans has been opened. The condom next to it hasn't.

His clothing conceals tattoos that cover his arms, hands, back, and torso: a masked figure holding a revolver, skulls, playing cards, a dollar sign, an anarchy symbol, a hand with an extended middle finger, guns, the words "PAIN" and "Fear What You Don't Know."

Beyond the ink, however, there isn't much about the thirty-four-year-old that's physically imposing. He stands only five feet nine and weighs just 149 pounds.

A smile would reveal that the middle six teeth along his bottom jaw are covered with a yellow metal grill. But it's the small spade tattoo on his face that makes him unmistakable to those who know him. And in Durham's McDougald Terrace, everyone knows Frank "Scooter Bug" Clark.

So, too, do the police officers assigned to many of the city's low-income neighborhoods. Durham Police Department Master Officer Charles Barkley and Officer Monte Southerland have a rapport with Clark, residents say. Perhaps more important, Clark knows them. He's familiar with what dozens of residents would later characterize as the officers' mistreatment of the neighborhood's impoverished African-American citizens, particularly those, like Clark, with criminal records.

So when Barkley's unmarked gray Dodge Charger slow-rolls around McDougald on November 22, the crowd gathered in between several of the Durham Housing Authority buildings scatters. Clark, who has painkillers and cocaine in his system—and who witnesses say has already fled from the car once, when it was on the other side of the block—is now confronted by Barkley's Charger, another unmarked car, and a DPD cruiser. He turns to flee once again.

Southerland gets out of his car first, then Barkley. Moments later, shots ring out. Some self-described witnesses say it was four shots, others five. But they agree that Barkley is the shooter and that he shot Clark in the back as he ran. Clark lies lifeless on the ground in front of Building 60, having succumbed to gunshot wounds to the back of his thigh and the top of his head.

According to the autopsy report released last week by the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the shot to the thigh shattered Clark's femur, making it plausible that the wound forced him to fall toward the ground, leaving the top left of his head exposed to a second, fatal bullet, which the autopsy indicates was fired at a downward angle. While the autopsy could not determine which bullet was fired first, this theory aligns with descriptions of the shooting by several purported eyewitnesses, as well as a postmortem photograph of Clark reviewed by the INDY.

The DPD, however, is pushing a different narrative. In its telling, Barkley, Southerland, and Officer Christopher Goss approached Clark and were having a conversation with him when Clark reached for his waistband. A struggle ensued. The officers heard what they believed to be a gunshot. Southerland fell to the ground. Barkley fired his weapon. Nowhere in the report police chief C.J. Davis released a week after the shooting does it say Clark fled.

"The autopsy report does not reveal anything that we did not generally already know and believe," says Clark family attorney Dave Hall, a lawyer with the nonprofit Southern Coalition for Social Justice. "Specifically, that Frank was shot from behind while fleeing the police."

As the State Bureau of Investigation continues its probe, local residents grow more skeptical of the officers involved—and the DPD's version of events—with each release of new information. On its own, Hall says, the autopsy should make Barkley the object of intense scrutiny.

But the autopsy also calls into question the veracity of the officers' version of events, as recounted in that initial report (so far, the only document the city has released on the shooting). And it adds fuel to the argument, made by skeptics of the DPD's story, that, while details about Clark's past will continue to be dissected in newspaper stories, the officers' records and past transgressions are wrongly being protected by City Hall and hidden from public view.

"If they didn't have anything to hide, they would give the public anything that they wanted to know," says Shelia Alston, a former police officer who accused the officers involved in Clark's death of excessive force in 2014. "I think that the system is dirty, it's crooked."

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The DPD's report suggests that Barkley, Southerland, and Goss, in their roles as members of the department's Violent Incident Response Team, were circling McDougald Terrace on November 22 as part of a standard patrol. There is no mention of an incident they were responding to, no transcript of a 911 call, no indication of a resident seeking help. Instead, Southerland "saw a man near Building 60 and got out of his patrol car to speak with him," the report states.

In the six weeks since the shooting, the DPD hasn't elaborated. Spokesman Wil Glenn has declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation; multiple requests to interview the officers involved have been denied.

The DPD's report, however, takes note of the unanswered question about what prompted the cops to approach Clark that afternoon. "The investigations are ongoing and, as they develop, are expected to uncover details which have yet to be determined such as how the encounter evolved," it says.

But why, if the police weren't about to bust Clark for committing a crime, if they just wanted to chat, would Clark instigate a struggle? The DPD might point to, as its reports points out, the "loaded Smith & Wesson 9 mm handgun found lying on the ground next to Clark" or the "white rock-like substance wrapped in a plastic bag" that "fell out of Clark's pants" while he was being treated by emergency medical personnel or even the plastic bag containing a "green leafy substance" that medical examiners found in the shorts under Clark's jeans.

This raises yet another question: Why would Clark have stuffed marijuana under his outer layer of clothing but allowed the cocaine to be more accessible? "Yeah. That makes sense, right?" says a self-described friend of Clark who asked to remain anonymous. "Go to lengths to hide the misdemeanor and leave the felony just chillin'."

It's possible that Clark, who has been arrested on numerous narcotics charges, was going to sell the cocaine and thus needed it at the ready. Some McDougald residents, however, believe the cops planted it after the shooting.

And Hall, the attorney, isn't sold on the notion that the gun found next to Clark was his or that it had been fired. At a press conference November 29, he demanded that law enforcement test the firearm for fingerprints and DNA and that gunshot residue tests be conducted on Clark's hands. The autopsy made no note of residue on Clark's corpse, and the DPD has released no information about whether a shell casing from the shot Barkley says he heard was ever found.

"Where is this mysterious gunshot?" Hall asks.

It's unclear what, if any, questions the personnel files of the three officers involved in Clark's shooting would answer. But the documents would speak to why the DPD suspended Southerland in March 2016 and Barkley in 2014. In addition, files from an internal investigation into the actions taken against the Alston family by Barkley, Southerland, and Goss in 2014, when the three were accused of excessive force after intervening in a nonviolent family argument ["Disorderly Conduct," December 14], could shed light into the mentality of men numerous Durham residents have accused of less-than-professional behavior.

As a former cop, Alston says, "If I want to let people know the truth, I would say, 'Yeah. Let me go on TV. Let me talk to everybody. I've got nothing to hide.' So in this case, I think it's a cover-up."

Ian Mance, another SCSJ attorney, says the Alston incident—in which the officers allegedly threw Alston to the ground and tased her son and fifteen-year-old grandson—should have been enough to ensure that they were taken off the streets.

"We have had many conversations with the city of Durham, specifically the Durham Police Department, about these very officers, and we stated in no uncertain terms a year and a half ago that we believed these officers represented a threat to this community," Mance says.

But those records will likely remain under seal, as North Carolina is one of just eighteen states that exempt law enforcement records from public review, according to a 2010 National Association of Counties report.

However, most of those states, including North Carolina, allow for the release of such documents if, as city manager Tom Bonfield has put it, doing so is deemed "essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration of city services."

Bonfield doesn't think Clark's shooting qualifies. In a statement issued hours after the autopsy report was released, Bonfield said that, based on a review by top city officials, "I have concluded at this time it is premature to request the City Council to authorize the release of further ... information. It is important that the investigation continues to be conducted in a fair and impartial way for the benefit of the public as well as the police ... involved."

City council member Jillian Johnson disagrees. In an email sent to Bonfield at the end of November, she said she was "struggling to understand" why the officers involved in the Clark shooting were still employed by the DPD.

"I understand there may be legal implications to reviewing prior employment actions, but frankly I'd rather settle some lawsuits [than] have another person killed by our police department." (Johnson told the INDY Monday that she still believes the personnel files should be released.)

Bonfield's standards for a "fair and impartial" process don't apply to Clark. His extensive criminal record, which dates back to at least 2002 and includes mostly drug charges (many of them dismissed), is fair game—and has been prominently noted by nearly every news media outlet that has covered the shooting, as were the drugs that were in his system when he died.

"They always want to make it seem like it's the victim's fault, not the officer's fault," Alston says. "If they've got nothing to hide, what's the problem?

This article appeared in print with the headline "'Shot From Behind'."

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