ASHEVILLE — Jai Lateef Solveig Williams was struck by multiple gunshots and had a blood alcohol level up to 50 percent above the legal limit at the time he died on July 2, according to a report the state medical examiner’s office released Friday.
Asheville Police Sgt. Tyler Radford shot Williams after pursuing his vehicle to the Deaverview Apartments. The State Bureau of Investigation recently finished a probe of the case and forwarded its findings to Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams, who is considering possible charges in Jai Williams’ death. But details of the SBI probe have not been made public at this time. Radford was placed on administrative leave.
The medical examiner’s report leaves many unanswered questions in the case, but does show that nine of the shots Radford fired struck Williams. It shows that Williams must have consumed a substantial amount of alcohol before getting behind the wheel that day. It also showed that no illegal drugs were found in his body.
The case has drawn attention amid a national atmosphere of tension over police shootings. Because Jai Williams was black and Radford is white, questions have arisen about whether race played a role in the amount of force police used.
Unlike many other cases around the country in which most facts of the shooting are relatively well-established and only questions of judgment are in doubt, in this case a wide gulf has emerged between the official police account and the statements from various individuals who have presented themselves to the news media as witnesses. Details in the medical examiner’s report should shed some light on those conflicting accounts.
Police dispatchers received a complaint of someone firing shots at Pisgah View Apartments on July 2. Like Deaverview, the facility is operated by the Asheville Housing Authority.
The housing authority publishes a list of people who are banned from its sites in order to combat real and perceived problems with crime. As Carolina Public Press previously reported, due to multiple previous incidents, including a conviction for firing rounds from a stolen gun and a charge for breaking into an ex-girlfriend’s apartment, Williams’ name appeared on the banned list and had been there for some time.
Radford called into dispatchers that he was pursuing Williams as the suspect in the shootings a substantial distance away from Pisgah View in West Asheville. Whether the officer spotted Williams’ vehicle just before calling in the pursuit or a few minutes earlier remains unclear.
Although Williams was not headed directly away from Pisgah View at the time this radio call came in, he could initially have headed northwest from Pisgah View, then turned west and then south toward Haywood Road. Radford described him turning west onto Haywood and then continuing northwest before turning west on Patton Avenue. According to Radford, the chase continued at a high speed, before ending up at Deaverview.
Some alleged witnesses have publicly questioned whether Williams was going fast, though it’s clear that he was being followed by a police vehicle on a public street and chose not to pull over before reaching Deaverview, from which he had also been banned.
The medical examiner’s report shows that Williams’ eye fluid indicated a blood alcohol content of 0.12 g/dL, with blood from his lung cavity showing a .11 level. Both are well above the legal limit in North Carolina, which is 0.08.
Sgt. Mike Baker, a public information officer for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, talked with Carolina Public Press on Monday about the implications of a blood alcohol content at this level, though not directly about this specific case.
Baker noted that someone with a .08 blood alcohol content was over the legal limit in the state and would face criminal charges.
But how much someone was impaired at .11 or .12 could vary with the individual, Baker said. Some frequent drinkers might show virtually no impairment at those levels while some people with a much lower blood alcohol content might have severe impairment.
In this case, Williams being intoxicated cuts both ways in analyzing the case.
On the one hand, it shows that he should not have been behind the wheel and suggests the potentially impaired judgment that could have led someone to fire shots at an apartment complex, fled police at a high speed and pulled a gun on police when ordered to surrender.
On the other, it raises doubts about how he could have navigated narrow West Asheville streets at the speeds police have described, in excess of 70 miles per hour.
According to Radford, Williams was carrying an AR-15 rifle and acted in a threatening manner when he was ordered to drop the gun, leading Radford to open fire out of concern for the safety of Williams’ passengers and himself. Police have not disclosed the type of weapon that Radford used.
Radford has described previously seeing Williams strike at least one woman who was a passenger in the vehicle while it was en route to Deaverview. Others who have come forward have questioned whether Williams punched a passenger.
But the central fact these purported witnesses have questioned is whether Williams had a rifle. They have suggested that police planted the gun near his body after the shooting. The medical examiner’s report does not clearly resolve this important question. It cites Radford’s claim that Williams “exited the vehicle with a weapon,” but offers no further findings on the truth of that claim.
Police previously have not gone into great detail about how many rounds Radford fired or the wounds to Williams, except they were fatal. But purported witnesses have been quoted in other media giving their view that police fired at least seven shots, with one of the first shots detaching part of Williams’ arm.
The medical examiner’s report somewhat supports those accounts. Though it does not say Williams’ arm was detached, it describes a large hole in his wrist resulting from a single shot. Given the size of the hole, 4.5 inches by 1.5 inches, the arm would likely have appeared badly damaged to witnesses.
The medical examiner found that this wound was the result of both the bones in Williams’ wrist and the bullet fragmenting and then exiting the skin. The report states that it does not attempt to determine the order in which these shots struck Williams, so it’s not clear whether the wrist wound came early.
The medical examiner identified a total of 12 times that Williams was struck, sometimes with the same round exiting and then re-entering his body. But three of these cases appear to be “shrapnel type” lacerations, to portions of his face and chest, rather than actual gunshot wounds.
Of the nine shots that did strike Williams, two involved bullets that grazed him. Seven others caused substantial wounds.
Although the report cites cause of death as “multiple gunshot wounds of head, chest, abdomen and extremities,” only the one to his midsection appears to have damaged vital organs, including the heart.
In addition to the three grazing shots and two severe shots to his wrist and chest, five other shots passed through Williams’ arms and legs. The order of shots is not known.
The SBI’s completed but not publicized investigation report likely addressed many of the other key factual questions that remain in question. Agents may have obtained surveillance footage that will document where Williams was at various times and places.
Ballistics reports will show whether shell casings another officer found at Pisgah View are a match for the rifle found near Williams’ body at Deaverview. Gunpowder residue analysis may also show whether Williams had fired a gun before he died.
In conducting its probe, the SBI faced the maze of conflicting witness testimony, including statements that some people gave to police and the SBI that may be at odds with the statements they gave to the news media.
Crucial testimony may have come from the women who were passengers in Williams’ car.
The district attorney, who will decide whether to charge Radford, likely already knows the SBI’s answers to each of these questions.
The case has fomented protests that could end, continue or change direction depending on the outcome. Protesters are concerned about this specific case, but also about the general pattern of police killing black men through a use of force that may be both questionable and excessive.
Regardless of the broader consequences, the SBI’s findings and the DA’s decision will loom large for the families and friends of two men, Jai Williams and Tyler Radford.