On Wednesday, 22-year-old Darrien Hunt was shot dead by police in Saratoga Springs, Utah, about 35 miles south of Salt Lake City.
For three days, police said nothing about the cause of the shooting while witnesses reported that he was running away as officers shot outside a Panda Express. On Saturday, police issued a brief statement saying he lunged at them with a sword. But Hunt’s lawyer says an independent autopsy shows Hunt was shot in the back and not in the front, and his mother Susan Hunt says the “sword” was a blunt-edged vanity version of a Japanese “Katana” sword he bought at an Asian gift shop.
“Those stupid cops thought they had to murder over a toy,” Susan Hunt told the Associated Press. The family’s lawyer, Randall K. Edwards, declined requests from the Los Angeles Times to provide the name of pathologist who performed the alleged autopsy, or to provide a copy of the autopsy.
Hunt told the Associated Press that she returned to Utah recently after separating from her husband and fleeing an abusive relationship, to start a new life with her children. She said Darrien was coping with the separation and looking for jobs in Saratoga Springs.
The statement from Utah County Chief Deputy Attorney Tim Taylor said police received a report of a “suspicious” individual with a sword. “When the officers made contact with Mr. Hunt, preliminary evidence suggests that Mr. Hunt brandished the sword and lunged toward the officers with the sword, at which time Mr. Hunt was shot,” the statement said. “There is currently no indication that race played any role in the confrontation between Mr. Hunt and the police officers.” Taylor said the department would issue findings at the conclusion of its investigation.
Utah has an open carry law, meaning that residents are permitted to openly carry guns even if they don’t have a permit. Police are therefore likely to encounter other individuals walking down the street with guns, and it’s unclear at what point they would be considered “suspicious.”
A woman snapped a photo of Hunt with his sword minutes before the incident, as she drove by. He also appears to be wearing a costume:
CREDIT: Natalie Christensen, via KSL.com
The photographer said she took the photo because Hunt looked odd, but that he didn’t seem threatening. Salt Lake City’s annual Comic Con event occurred the weekend prior to the incident, and many attendees at that event don toy swords and costumes, although it is not clear whether Hunt’s sword was related to the event. Some on Twitter have noted the resemblance between Hunt and a character named Mugen from Japanese anime series Samurai Champloo, including Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, who tweeted:
This is what Hunt was wearing when he was killed. Compare to the character from Samurai Champloo. Was he cosplaying? pic.twitter.com/TlFS49OTYJ
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) September 15, 2014
A witness reportedly took another photo and sent to Susan Hunt, which shows police standing on either side of Darrien, though the sword is not visible in that photo.
“I’ve been begging the police, why from the time I saw the pictures of you just standing by him with his hands to his side, does he end up seconds later with a bullet in him?” Susan Hunt told the Deseret News. She added, “No white boy with a little sword would they shoot while he’s running away.” As the LA Times points out, Saratoga Springs is 93 percent white in the latest census figures, and a similar size to Ferguson, Missouri, at about 22,749 residents.
On Sunday, the police department posted a status update on its Facebook page that stated, “Everyone should remember that the news outlets have ratings they need to gain. They don’t report facts. They use innuendo, opinion and rumor and then report it as fact. The same thing happens here on FB and other social media. The real facts are being determined by an independent investigation, and not in a rushed or haphazard manner. … There is no coverup and there is no corruption.” The statement, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, has since been deleted.
In comments to the Guardian, the police department substantially changed their account of how Darrien Hunt was killed. The police now claim he lunged at the officers, was “shot at,” and then was shot several more times as he “headed north.”
Police Chief Andy Burton apologized for the statement on his department’s Facebook page that suggested the media was not reporting facts. “We apologize for this comment and have removed the comment. We ask the media and the public for patience and understanding of our position and lack of ability to answer all the questions posed at this time,” Burton said in a statement.