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Safer than a gun? 

The death of a Charlotte teen raises questions about Taser use

The United Nations calls the use of Tasers a form of torture. Yet in Charlotte and many cities across the country, police departments hail the 50,000-volt shock gun as a safe alternative to firearms.

But not for 17-year-old Darryl Turner.

Turner, who worked at Food Lion on Prosperity Church Road, died after Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Jerry Dawson Jr. shocked him with a Taser.

Police have said the officer used his Taser after Turner "refused all verbal commands and advanced towards the officer." But attorney Ken Harris, who tells Creative Loafing that he was hired by Turner's family to "get a strong understanding of what happened," released a statement last week that contradicts the official police version of events.

"During the course of our investigation, we have uncovered a witness who suggests that he was at the Food Lion at the time of the incident," Harris wrote. "This individual states that he was purchasing a lottery ticket at the time of these events. This witness states that, at the time that the officer fired his Taser, the witness was less than five feet away from the officer."

Harris says the witness told him that when the officer commanded that Turner step back, he did but was still shot with the Taser: "The witness states that Darryl neither approached or threatened the officer at any time during the course of these events and that Darryl was in no need of being controlled, as he was compliant with the officer's instructions."

Since Turner's death, media reports have surfaced about Turner possessing marijuana and taking food from work. Harris says Turner's family is concerned about portrayals of the 17-year-old: "They want Darryl to be remembered correctly and for people to be aware of the good person that he was."

At a candlelight vigil Thursday, a day before Turner's funeral, tears flowed freely as his friends and family told stories about how nice and sweet the teen was. "I'm glad he's with God at peace and not suffering," Tammy Fontenot, Turner's mother told reporters. "But I miss him and wish none of this happened."

Memories of Turner varied from funny to sweet, like the one that Richie Johnson, who said she used to go to the Food Lion where Turner worked, was shocked by Turner's death. "He was always so nice," said Johnson. "I would always go into Food Lion and see this young man who I thought I knew."

It turned out Turner had graduated from high school with her grandson. "I don't think I'll go back in that store," Johnson said. "Because every time I go in there, I'm going to think about him."

In last year alone, CMPD officers deployed Tasers 138 times. Turner's death is the department's first associated with Tasers, but the department has used conducted energy weapons since 2004.

By 2004, Amnesty International already had raised concerns about use of the weapons. From 2001 to September 2007, Amnesty International has recorded 291 deaths of individuals struck by Tasers in the U.S. and Canada.

Police say that homicide detectives are conducting the investigation and will present the results to the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's office. CMPD Internal Affairs is conducting a separate investigation. And a review board, made up the officer's chain of command, internal affairs and a nonpolice representative from the Community Relations Committee, also will review available evidence and interview witnesses to determine whether the officer followed department policies.

Harris, the attorney hired by Turner's family, is also still investigating. Asked if the family plans to sue police, he replied, "We haven't made a decision about a lawsuit."

The official report

"At 1:15 p.m. Thursday, March 20, 2008, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police responded to a call for service at the Food Lion supermarket at 3024 Prosperity Church Road regarding a disturbance. Upon arrival, the officer observed Mr. Darryl Wayne Turner (DOB 6/7/90) assaulting the store manager by throwing an object at him. Mr. Turner appeared to be in a highly agitated state. He refused all verbal commands and advanced towards the officer. The officer, Jerry Dawson Jr., deployed his Taser to get Mr. Turner under control."

Source: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department

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