By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON S.C. (Reuters) - Civil rights advocates and the family of a 19-year-old former Army recruit fatally shot during a June 20 encounter with a South Carolina police officer are questioning the claim by law enforcement that his death appears to have been a suicide.
The officer is on paid leave as the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division investigates the shooting of Denzel Curnell in Charleston, who died after a gunshot wound in the head.
His death adds to "the sad and horrifying list of young black men shot by or in the presence of law enforcement in our community," the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said in a statement.
Police have released few details about the incident. They described the case as a "possible suicide," saying there was no evidence that the officer, Jamal Medlin, fired a weapon.
But Curnell's relatives are asking how the teenager, who was left-handed, could have shot himself in the right side of his head, said Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP branch.
They are pushing for the release of footage from surveillance cameras that might have recorded the incident at an apartment complex and for the coroner's report, said Charleston attorney Andrew Savage, who is representing Curnell's family.
"We've got to the point where our police department has been able to get by with any story they come up with," Scott said.
Charleston police spokesman Charles Francis would not respond on Thursday to questions raised about the case, noting the department is waiting for the state investigation to be completed.
According to a police report, Medlin was working in uniform for an off-duty assignment at a downtown apartment complex when he reported shots had been fired and a subject was down.
Another officer who responded to the scene found Curnell lying face down in the street in front of Medlin's police cruiser, the report said.
A gun valued at $200 was recovered from the scene, but the police report did not make clear to whom it belonged.
Curnell, a high school graduate, was discharged about six months ago from basic training in the Army, with military records indicating he wanted to go home, Savage said.
He had been grieving the death of his mother, who died in January 2013 of cancer, but his family did not believe he would commit suicide in the presence of a police officer without another reason, Scott said.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Sandra Maler)