Three months after a Black teenager was found dead of a gunshot wound to his head in the home of a man who flies a Confederate flag, a coroner’s inquest has rejected the initial ruling that the 19-year-old died of suicide and found the teen was in fact killed by violence.
It took only two hours for a six-person jury to make its decision on Friday in the death of Derontae Martin, who was found dead in an attic on April 25 at a rural home outside of Park Hills, Missouri, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
A handful of partygoers told EMTs who were called to the scene in the early hours of the morning that Martin shot himself. But the circumstances surrounding Martin’s death never made sense to his family members, who have insisted there was foul play.
A main point of contention was the initial autopsy performed on Martin, which determined the gun had been fired in close range due to a soot ring on Martin’s left temple. But Martin’s mother Ericka Lotts hired her own pathologist to conduct a second autopsy. This time, the expert said she found no soot ring and concluded the gun had been fired from “two or three feet, or more away.”
Dr. Russell Deidiker, the pathologist who performed the initial autopsy report, was one of the dozen people called to testify at the inquest. Deidiker said he stood by his report, claiming the second pathologist did not find a soot ring near the wound because Martin’s body had been cleaned during the embalming process. Martin’s mother said she never gave permission for his body to be embalmed, however.
In the months after Martin’s death, his family also wanted answers from James Wade, the owner of the home where Martin died, who had a history of sharing racially offensive posts on Facebook and flies a Confederate flag outside his home.
One of the posts shared by Wade was a picture of a Black man with a chain hanging from his neck paired with the caption, “My great great great grandfather’s tractor,” according to KSDK. Another was a photo of a black dog with the caption, “I had a black dog once. I named him Foodstamps.” Other posts on Wade’s Facebook page defended the Confederate flag and mocked foreign accents, according to St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Earlier in the year, he reportedly shared a meme that depicted someone waving the middle finger, with the caption, “Here’s my apology for being white.”
In May, Wade tried to defend his offensive posts, telling KSDK, “They’re already on Facebook, I just shared them, it’s not like I made them up or put them there, right. I’m not a racist.”
Wade testified at the inquest, admitting that he has used racial slurs, but stating that he did not kill Martin. Investigators say Wade passed a polygraph test when asked directly if had shot the teenager.
During the inquiry, new information was also presented from a tipster who claimed Wade had asked him for “back up” while at a local Walmart a few days after Martin died, believing protesters would be showing up at his home due to the outcry over Martin’s death. The man claimed in court that Wade admitted to killing Martin, using racial slurs when referring to him.
During the inquest, Wade said he had spoken to the man but claimed he had told him, “I probably could have shot him and gotten less heat from his people than what I got now from trying to help the guy.”
It’s unclear what will happen next, as the Madison County Sheriff's Department and Missouri Highway Patrol must now reopen the investigation into Martin’s death. Madison County Prosecutor M. Dwight Robbins did not make any statement to the press at the conclusion of the inquest.
Martin’s family is overjoyed with the news. “I am so glad and happy that they saw through all their lies, and they saw the truth, that my baby did not kill himself,” his mother said. “I am happy. I am happy that somebody else saw. Glory to God. I could just shout. But we got a long way to go, so we’ll just keep on praying and keep on trusting in the Lord.”