Howard Witt, Southwest Bureau Chief of the Chicago Tribune, based in Houston, Texas. He was a finalist this year for the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for his wide-ranging examination of racial issues in America.
Kayshon Collins, stepmother of Baron Pikes.
Lt. Charles Curry, lieutenant in the Winnfield Police Department.
Police in the city of Winnfield, Louisiana are being accused of covering up the death of twenty-one-year-old Baron Pikes. He died in police custody on January 21 after being shot nine times with a taser gun while in handcuffs. The city police chief initially claimed that Pikes was high on crack cocaine and PCP at the time of his death. But the coroner recently ruled Pikes’ death to be a homicide, after an autopsy determined there were no drugs in his system. The coroner also determined that the police shot Pikes twice after he lost consciousness. We speak with Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Witt, who broke the story nationally; Kayshon Collins, Baron Pikes’ stepmother; and Winnfield Police Lieutenant Charles Curry. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Nearly a year has passed since tens of thousands of protesters marched in Jena, Louisiana in one of the largest civil rights protests in years. The march condemned racism in the small town and the prosecution of six black high school students known as the Jena Six who were jailed after a schoolyard fight. The fight occurred after white students hung nooses from a tree in the schoolyard.
Now another racially explosive story is unfolding in a nearby Louisiana community. It involves a close relative of Mychal Bell, the lead defendant in the Jena Six case.
Police in the city of Winnfield are being accused of covering up the death of an African American man named Baron Pikes. Pikes was twenty-one-year-old. He was Bell’s first cousin. Baron Pikes died in police custody on January 21st after being shot nine times with a taser gun while in handcuffs.
The city police chief initially claimed Pikes was high on crack cocaine and PCP at the time of his death. But the coroner has just ruled Pikes’ death a homicide, after an autopsy determined there were no drugs in his system. His death certificate states he died after being "electro shocked nine times while in police custody and restraint." The coroner also determined the police shot Pikes twice after he lost consciousness — tased him twice.
Scott Nugent, the white police officer who tased Pikes, has been fired from the police department, but no charges have been filed in Pikes’ death.
We are joined right now by three guests. Howard Witt is the Southwest Bureau Chief of the Chicago Tribune. He wrote the first articles in the national press about both the killing of Baron Pikes and the Jena Six. Howard Witt was a finalist this year for the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for his wide-ranging examination of racial issues in America. Kayshon Collins is also with us, on the phone from Winnfield, Louisiana. She is the stepmother of Baron Pikes. And we’re also joined on the phone from Winnfield by the police lieutenant and spokesperson, Charles Curry.
We’re going to begin, though, with Howard Witt. Howard Witt actually today is in Chicago for the UNITY conference, the largest gathering of journalists in the United States, journalists of color, the four major journalists of color organizations, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Native American Journalists Association, Asian American Journalists Association and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. We’ll broadcast from there in Chicago tomorrow. Howard Witt, can you lay out this case?
HOWARD WITT: Yes. This incident happened last January, as you mentioned. Pikes had — there was an arrest warrant out for Pikes for possession of cocaine, I believe. The police officer Nugent spotted him walking on the street downtown in Winnfield. Pikes started running. They chased him down near a shopping center, near a grocery store in a little shopping center. Nugent subdued him, handcuffed him.
And then, after Pikes was on the ground and handcuffed, Nugent began ordering him to get up and walk to the police car. Pikes either wouldn’t or couldn’t, and so Nugent then began a series of taser shocks to [Pikes], which continued for a period of about fourteen minutes. And over the course of this fourteen minutes, both on the ground and later in the police car and at the police station, they delivered nine of these electroshocks to Pikes, as witnesses said he was pleading for them to stop tasering him. And by the way, everything I’ve just told you comes directly from the police report that Scott Nugent, the officer himself, wrote about the case.
AMY GOODMAN: When you say “they,” in terms of the tasering of Pikes, who do you mean?
HOWARD WITT: Well, according to all the police reports, there were three officers present. Nugent was the one actually delivering the taser shocks, and there were two other officers there at various times during this incident. One of them was a supervisor of Nugent and the guy who had actually taught him how to use the taser. And those other two officers were present, as I say, at various times during this incident.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how the story has changed — first, what was understood after he was killed, and then the information that has since been revealed?
HOWARD WITT: Yes. The police initially said that Pikes, once he got to the police station, had told Nugent and the other officers that he had asthma and that he had ingested both PCP, or otherwise known as angel dust, and crack cocaine, and the police left it — the implication being that Pikes was, like many of these cases we’ve seen around the country, a raging suspect who had to be tasered to be subdued and basically died because of the drugs that he had taken.
The coroner, however, found that there was nothing in Pikes’ system. They found that he had no history of asthma, a fact that’s also confirmed by Pikes’ family, and therefore, it makes it a little hard to believe that this man would have actually told the police that he had taken these drugs, when in fact he hadn’t taken these drugs. There was nothing in his system.
AMY GOODMAN: And the findings of the coroner and why they took so long and exactly what the coroner said, the medical examiner?
HOWARD WITT: Yes. The coroner, who talked to me extensively about the case, struck me as a man who’s really determined to make sure that the truth about the case comes out. He’s told me that he took a very long time examining this case, because he wanted to be sure of his conclusions. He had never encountered a case like this before. He told me he did a lot of research into the medical effects of these taser devices.
And he also took the extra step of submitting his findings and an autopsy that was performed to two other independent forensic examiners. One of them, Dr. Michael Baden, is a nationally known forensic pathologist in New York. The other is Dr. Frank Minyard, who is the medical examiner down in New Orleans, who was the man who did most of the Katrina work, as far as the unfortunate people who died there. So he sent his findings to both of them to ask them to look over his shoulder, basically, and see if his analysis was correct. And both of those forensic pathologists came back and concurred. And in fact, Dr. Baden, who I talked to, said that in his estimation, what was done to Pikes was tantamount to torture.
AMY GOODMAN: Lieutenant Charles Curry, you’re lieutenant in the Winnfield Police Department. You’re the police spokesperson of Winnfield. Your response?
LT. CHARLES CURRY: Response to Mr. Witt?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
LT. CHARLES CURRY: I really don’t know what the coroner has told him. All we had seen has been the death certificate. The actual autopsy, as far as I know, has not been released to the public or to the police department.
AMY GOODMAN: The ruling that this is a homicide, that “Scooter” Pikes was not on PCP, that his body was clear of drugs, your response to those findings?
LT. CHARLES CURRY: Well, like I said, at this time, I can’t comment on that, because I don’t have an autopsy to refer to.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what has happened to Scott Nugent? Was he fired?
LT. CHARLES CURRY: Scott Nugent was fired in May on a recommendation from the chief of police, based on some policy and procedure — or failure to follow policy and procedures, in this incident and in his actions afterwards.
AMY GOODMAN: Why was he fired exactly? For this case?
LT. CHARLES CURRY: It’s directly related to this case and his failure to follow policy and procedures in dealing with that case. It’s still currently under appeals with the Civil Service Board.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he was correct in tasering Baron Pikes?
LT. CHARLES CURRY: Without knowing all the facts of the case, I’m not going to comment on that.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Witt, does it surprise you that the police spokesperson, that Lieutenant Charles Curry, hasn’t seen the autopsy report? This now is, well, about more than six months after the death of Baron Pikes, though it did just recently come out.
HOWARD WITT: Well, I talked to Lieutenant Curry when I was in Winnfield last week, and, you know, he was pretty forthcoming with me. And, you know, I take him at his word that he hasn’t actually seen it. It is true that none of this has been officially released yet, because it’s really still all under investigation. The coroner’s file and investigation has been forwarded to the local district attorney, Chris Nevils. He, himself, has said that he is awaiting the results of the state — Louisiana State Police investigation of this case, which are due to be delivered to him perhaps as early as tomorrow, after which Nevils says he will look carefully at all of that and will take the case to a local grand jury, which will then decide whether or not to indict Scott Nugent on any charges in this case.
AMY GOODMAN: We are speaking to Howard Witt. Howard Witt is a Chicago Tribune correspondent, talking about Winnfield, Louisiana. We’re also joined by Lieutenant Charles Curry, spokesperson for the Winnfield Police Department. And when we’ll come back, we will also hear from Kayshon Collins, stepmother of Baron Pikes. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. After that, we go to Shenandoah, Pennsylvania to hear about the death of a Mexican immigrant this weekend, the father of two children. We’ll speak with his fiancee and a witness to the killing, killed by a gang of whites in town. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue with this discussion of what happened in Winnfield, Louisiana, not forty-five minutes from Jena, and the connections go on from there. But our guests are Howard Witt, the Pulitzer-nominated journalist, writes for the Chicago Tribune, wrote the first major story on what happened in Winnfield, as well as the Jena Six, the first major national story — he’s Southwest Bureau Chief of the Chicago Tribune. He’s based in Houston, though speaking to us from UNITY, the UNITY conference that’s taking place right now in Chicago, of the four major journalists of color organizations, the largest gathering of journalists in the country. Democracy Now! will be broadcasting from there tomorrow. We’re also joined by Lieutenant Charles Curry, spokesperson for the Winnfield Police Department in Louisiana.
We go now to Kayshon Collins. She is the stepmother of Baron Pikes. Can you talk about your stepson? Can you talk about what happened?
KAYSHON COLLINS: He was — he had just turned twenty-one like on the 12th of January, and this incident happened on the 17th of January. He mostly stayed to himself. That, you know — a lot of nasty things have been said about him, and I just want everything to be cleared up, and his name be cleared, or whatever, you know, the case may be.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your reaction to the release of the autopsy report?
KAYSHON COLLINS: We’ve got the death certificate. It really, you know, hurt because of what his death’s root is. But I hope everything, you know, just be done fairly and the case be treated, you know, in a fair manner. I don’t want anything, no kind of — I don’t any racial tension, anything stirred in Winnfield, because the community is upset, and I just want peace and closure to this situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Lieutenant Charles Curry, is there any discussion of charges being brought against Scott Nugent? Yes, he was fired from the police —- he’s the son of the former police chief?
LT. CHARLES CURRY: That’s correct. Any discussion -—
AMY GOODMAN: Is there a discussion —-
LT. CHARLES CURRY: Any discussion about charges would be from the DA’s office. The DA will probably present this to the grand jury as soon as he has all the information. They’re going to decide if there’s going to be charges or not.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Witt, can you describe Winnfield for us? In the pieces that you’ve done, you locate it for us both in geography, but just in terms of politically what its history is and its racial history, as well.
HOWARD WITT: Winnfield has a very interesting political history. It’s a town of about 3,000 people today. It was actually one of the few cities in the South that did not secede during the Civil War. Local folks there actually voted not to secede from the Union. Since then, today, it’s roughly split about fifty-fifty between black and white residents. But it’s also a place where, when you talk to the black folks there, many of them will tell you that there is a lot of racism in that community. They feel a lot of discrimination at the hands of the local government, which is dominated mostly by whites, and also at the hands of the police. And it’s a town that has a rich history, because it’s the birthplace of both Huey and Earl Long, two of Louisiana’s most famous, and some would say infamous, governors.
It’s also a town that has a recent history of a lot of questionable corruption in history. The former police chief, the father of Scott Nugent, a man named Gleason Nugent, committed suicide in 2005. That was after, a little while after, he had lost a close race for reelection to police chief, which was marred by a lot of allegations of fraud. A few months after Nugent committed suicide, the local district attorney, a man named Terry Reeves, committed suicide, and he was under investigation under suspicion for massive corruption, diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars from his office and extorting payoffs from defendants in order to make their cases go away.
So there’s a very rich background there of corruption, which is why this case in particular has drawn a lot of scrutiny and why the coroner told he was concerned to make sure that the truth comes out about this case, because there’s this feeling that in a town like Winnfield things can be made to go away, and some people want to make sure that that doesn’t happen.
The last interesting point about Winnfield is it’s located about forty miles from Jena, Louisiana. And as you mentioned in your introduction, there’s a direct tie to Jena in this very bizarre and tragic way, in that Baron Pikes was a first cousin to Mychal Bell, one of the defendants, one of the Jena Six defendants.
AMY GOODMAN: Has Mychal Bell or Mychal’s family commented on what has happened in Winnfield?
HOWARD WITT: Not to my knowledge, no.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you have also covered Jena extensively, the first big national story on Jena to come out. Can you talk about the latest news on the Jena Six and what has happened with them?
HOWARD WITT: Yes. At the moment, everyone’s awaiting a ruling, which could come down at any point, from a judge in Alexandria who was appointed to decide a motion that was brought by the remaining Jena Six defendants to try to recuse the judge, Judge Mauffray. They accuse him of overt bias in the case, and in fact, during a hearing last month, Mauffray himself admitted having made a lot of comments inside and outside the courtroom that would suggest that he had made up his mind about the guilt of the Jena Six defendants. So the defense attorneys have brought a motion to get him thrown off the case. That ruling is expected at any time.
In addition, Mychal Bell very soon, if not already, is probably going to be freed, because he will have finished -— he’s due to have finished serving out his sentence, which basically involved being put with a foster family elsewhere in Louisiana. And he’s almost finished with that sentence, if he’s not already free.
AMY GOODMAN: And another of the Jena Six, the young man who has been held on house arrest, there was a reversal of Mauffray in that case, too, is that right?
HOWARD WITT: That’s correct. One of the defendants, named Jesse Beard, who’s one of the five remaining defendants yet to go to trial, had gone before Judge Mauffray and asked for permission to be released from probation so he could attend a special school that his attorneys had arranged for him in New York State. Mauffray declined to let him go and in fact wanted to put him back behind bars. So that decision was appealed also to this visiting judge from Alexandria, a man named Judge Tom Yeager. And Yeager, a few weeks ago, overruled Mauffray and said that it would be OK for Beard to actually go attend this school in Upstate New York.
So that, in fact, was the second time that Yeager had overruled Mauffray, because last year Yeager ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by my newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, and other media organizations forcing Mauffray to open up the Jena Six proceedings. Mauffray had ordered them to be closed, and Yeager ruled in our lawsuit that he was in fact in error and that the proceedings had to be open to the public.
AMY GOODMAN: And the other issue that Mauffray was reversed on was trying Mychal Bell as an adult.
HOWARD WITT: That’s correct. The first reversal Mauffray had in this case was a decision that was made to try Mychal Bell as an adult. Mychal Bell was tried as an adult in court a year ago and was found guilty, but that decision was overturned by an appellate court finding that he had been improperly tried. So Mauffray has a history of reversals in this case.
AMY GOODMAN: Back in Winnfield, Lieutenant Charles Curry, what is the policy of the police department in the use of a taser gun?
LT. CHARLES CURRY: Taser is on the same level as continuum level as the collapsible baton and chemical spray. It is used to bring a noncompliant subject into compliance.
HOWARD WITT: Lieutenant Curry, if I might add —-
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Witt?.
HOWARD WITT: Yes. The actual written policy of the police department says something different. It doesn’t say to bring a noncompliant suspect into compliance. It says it’s only to be used in the case where a subject is violent or poses a threat to himself or others. That doesn’t appear to have been the case in this case, according to all the police reports of the incident. So, doesn’t it appear as if it was a contravention of the policy in this case?
LT. CHARLES CURRY: Mr. Witt?
HOWARD WITT: Yeah.
LT. CHARLES CURRY: I don’t think we all have the facts to make determinations. That’s why we’re having a grand jury on this situation. We don’t know what the officer perceived at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: I was -—
LT. CHARLES CURRY: We don’t know exactly what happened. That’s the reason we have the investigations and we have outside agencies looking at it.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Witt?
HOWARD WITT: You know, all I can say is the police report itself, written by Scott Nugent, states that Pikes was not posing a threat, he was simply refusing to get up quickly enough to satisfy Officer Nugent. That’s what Nugent himself wrote in his own report of the incident.
LT. CHARLES CURRY: And that may be, but we’ve got what? You said, yourself, we had other officers there. We’ve got an autopsy report. You’ve got a complete investigation by the state police. All this has got to be taken into effect. You know, we’ve got to look at everything, not just one thing. There again, everybody wants to make an assumption on what happened. And bottom line is that we weren’t there. We don’t know. We have to rely on what the information — all the information that’s gathered.
AMY GOODMAN: Lieutenant Charles Curry, why did the police chief say that Baron Pikes was high on PCP and crack at the time of his death, the coroner finding that was not true?
LT. CHARLES CURRY: You said the chief of police said that?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
LT. CHARLES CURRY: No, the chief of police did not say that. The officers that were dealing with him said that he made the statement to them that he had ingested then. That’s more than one officer made that statement. I don’t know if he said it or not.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Witt? You’ve been following this case.
HOWARD WITT: Well, the chief was quoted in the local newspaper, the Winn Parish Enterprise, as saying that that’s what the report was. But regardless, that was the official version that was coming out of the police department, that leaving it — the assumption being that the guy was high on drugs, when he wasn’t.
AMY GOODMAN: The issue of stun guns being a form of torture, that you mentioned, Howard Witt — we had a news headline recently saying the United Nations Committee Against Torture has determined the use of tasers, stun guns can be a form of torture and violate the UN Convention Against Torture. The committee said the stun guns cause extreme pain and, in some cases, death, as we’ve seen here. Howard Witt?
HOWARD WITT: Well, you know, first of all, I want to make it clear, I’m not saying it’s torture; that was what Dr. Michael Baden, the forensic pathologist, said about the case. The Taser International folks who I spoke to, that corporation based in Arizona, vigorously deny that their weapon is dangerous and certainly would deny, I think, that it is used for torture.
But what’s interesting is, they point to dozens of medical studies which they say proves the safety of these devices, but very few of those studies, all but a handful, never looked at the situation where a suspect is repeatedly tasered over a concentrated period of time. And in fact, on their own written warning, which they give to police departments, accompanying this device, they warn against multiple uses of this taser against a suspect. And the United States Justice Department just recently finished a study about a month ago trying to assess the safety of these devices, and the Justice Department also said that the safety of these devices regarding multiple applications against a suspect is unknown.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Witt, the final tasering applied directly to Baron Pikes’ heart?
HOWARD WITT: That’s what the coroner said. And the coroner said that, in fact, the last two taser shocks were delivered after Pikes was unconscious and unresponsive. And in fact, one of the policemen at the scene wrote in his report that Pikes was foaming at the mouth at that point, and what medical experts say is that is a sign of acute respiratory distress. That foaming at the mouth is actually lung surfactant that comes out when you are basically struggling to breathe.
AMY GOODMAN: Lieutenant Charles Curry, is there a review of the use of the taser gun in your department now?
LT. CHARLES CURRY: It is currently under review, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And as we wrap up, Kayshon Collins, stepmother of Baron Pikes, your thoughts, as you listen to this conversation? It’s now been almost half a year, or a little over, that your son has been dead.
KAYSHON COLLINS: Well, I feel like he was tortured. And like I said earlier, I just want justice to be done. I just want things to be done in the right way, because I really feel like he was tortured. And it hurts every night for me to have to go to sleep and listen for him to have to beg for his life, so I was told. I wasn’t there. I don’t know. But I was told that he was asking, “Please don’t tase me!” Knowing that hurts — or that thought just stays in my mind every night that I, you know, go to sleep, me and his — his grandmother, the lady that raised him, had to leave the house where they were living, and she had to come stay with me, because she couldn’t go back to that house anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Lieutenant Charles Curry, the lawyer for Scott Nugent, the police officer who tased Baron Pikes, said that he did the right thing, that the officer, Scott Nugent, had a choice of beating him or tasing him, and he thought he made the right choice. Your comment?
LT. CHARLES CURRY: Well, you’d have to ask Mr. Terrell that. He represents Scott and then speaks for Scott.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Howard Witt, the racial atmosphere in Winnfield right now?
HOWARD WITT: Well, I would say that it’s really going to depend on what happens with this case. I think that the black community there is watching closely to see whether or not there are charges brought in the case. If there are not charges brought, I think you’re looking at a potentially, you know, explosive situation there. But I think that people are, you know, basically waiting and waiting to see how the justice system proceeds down there.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Witt, Southwest Bureau Chief of the Chicago Tribune, he’s based in Houston, Texas, was the first to do a national piece on this story, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting on his wide-ranging examination of racial issues in America. Howard Witt, joining us from Chicago, where the UNITY conference is taking place right now, the largest gathering of journalists in the United States. We’ve also been joined by Lieutenant Charles Curry, spokesperson for the Winnfield Police Department in Louisiana, and Kayshon Collins, the stepmother of Baron Pikes, killed last January, twenty-one-year-old African American man, in Winnfield and ironically, strangely, the first cousin of Mychal Bell, the lead defendant in the case of the Jena Six in Jena, Louisiana, not forty-five minutes away. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll certainly continue to cover this piece.
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