A rally in support of Carlos Riley Jr. (Courtesy of carlosrileyjr.weebly.com)
Carlos Riley Jr. was alone, black and unarmed when he was pulled over by a Durham, North Carolina police officer on the cold morning of December 18, 2012. In the altercation that followed the stop, Riley was badly beaten, the officer was shot in the leg and his gun went missing. More than seven months later, Carlos Riley Jr. sits in jail under $1 million bond, still waiting to face federal and state charges. He has spent Christmas, the New Year and most recently his twenty-second birthday behind bars. The cop who pulled his gun during the traffic stop hasn’t spent a day off the job.
“This is America, this is the kind of judicial system we live in,” says Carlos Riley Sr., his father. “It’s degrading. I have no faith in the judicial system now, for them to allow something like this to happen.”
Riley Sr.’s indignation—bolstered in recent months by a coalition of grassroots organizations that have come out in support of Riley Jr., including the local NAACP and SpiritHouse—is rooted in what he understands to be the facts of the case. And in the shadow of the verdict finding George Zimmerman not guilty for the killing of Trayvon Martin, his son’s story follows a painfully familiar script.
At around ten in the morning on December 18, 2012, Carlos Riley Jr. was stopped for an alleged traffic violation by officer Kelly Stewart, who was wearing civilian clothes and driving an unmarked car. Riley maintains that the officer grabbed him through his open window after demanding to see registration, putting him in a chokehold and threatening to kill him. Riley says Stewart then shot himself in the leg as he drew his gun, an event with plenty of precedent among such encounters. Fearing for his life, Riley says he pulled the gun away from the officer and fled, tossing the weapon and turning himself over to the authorities within hours.
The Durham Police Department disputes this version of events. The federal District Attorney accuses Riley of muscling the gun from Stewart, firing it at him and then stealing it, charging him as a felon in possession of a gun. Despite originally alleging Riley also stole Stewart’s handcuffs and badge, those items, as well as the gun’s holster, were eventually discovered by police investigators, strengthening Riley’s insistence that he discarded everything in the area.
“It makes it an easier charge if the gun is missing,” notes Walter Riley, Carlos Riley Jr.’s great-uncle and an attorney working with the Durham NAACP to file civil police misconduct charges on Riley Jr.’s behalf. “I don’t know how many drop-gun cases Durham has had to deal with,” he says, referring to the practice of police officers conspiring to tamper with gun evidence to absolve themselves of illegal shootings. “But the big cities do all the time.” In his assessment, “There are only two possibilities for the gun. Either Carlos knows where it is, or someone found it, either the police department or a civilian.” Walter Riley’s experience as a Bay Area litigator leads him to suspect it’s the latter. Even if the gun wasn’t disappeared by police, he points out, “It’s a nice piece of equipment. It has resale value.”