A Coroner Said a Black Missouri Teen Committed Suicide In the Attic of a Man Known for Racist Social Media Posts. A Jury Disagreed

Michael Harriot

More than three months after a Black Missouri teenager was found dead at a party hosted by a man whose social media can best be described as “how to be a pro racist,” a Missouri jury has overruled the coroner’s initial findings and declared that the 19-year-old’s gunshot wound was not self-inflicted.

On April 23, Derontae Martin attended a party with friends at a rural home in Fredericktown, Mo. The 6-foot, 3-inch 250-pound former high school football star was attending an 18th birthday party for the daughter of James Wade, whose home was adorned with multiple Confederate flags. Wade was known for sharing racially charged posts on white Facebook, including one with a picture of a Black man in chains captioned: “My great great great grandfather’s tractor.” Another meme featured a black dog with the words: “I had a black dog once. I named him Foodstamps.” But Wade insists he is not racist.

“I was born in the South, and I’m not ashamed to show the Confederate flag or anything,” he told KDSK. “[The racist memes] are 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.”

Glad he cleared that up.

But Wade could not explain how Martin ended up in his home in the middle of the night with a bullet to his head. In a 3:01 a.m. call to 911, Wade claimed to have heard a gunshot during the bash and found Martin dead shortly after the homeowner returned from fishing. In the middle of the night. On his daughter’s birthday.

Witnesses say that Martin seemed paranoid that evening, while others believed that Wade was involved in Martin’s death with two other partygoers. At least one witness statement claims that Wade killed the teen. A county pathologist performed an autopsy and determined that Martin committed suicide, even though Martin’s body didn’t have soot, an imprint of the gun’s muzzle, or deposits of gunpowder typical of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. The pathologists, however, claimed the missing telltale signs of suicide were caused by the coroner cleaning the teen’s body after the autopsy.

Martin’s mother didn’t buy it. The family commissioned their own autopsy, which contradicted the initial determination that Martin caused his own death. Martin’s mother also insisted that he didn’t take methamphetamine, which coroners found in his body. Instead, the examiner found that Martin had been shot from a distance. The deceased man’s family eventually convinced the county to hold a coroner’s inquest, where a six-person jury reviewed the available evidence to determine whether Martin’s cause of death was accidental, suicide, from natural causes or by violence.

The Post-Dispatch reports:

Jury members listened and took notes as Madison County Prosecutor M. Dwight Robbins called nearly 20 witnesses, including Missouri Highway Patrol officers and people who were at the party, and he also presented evidence gathered at the scene…

The jury heard from other witnesses along with written statements from people who attended the birthday party. Some described Martin’s behavior as paranoid. Others claimed various people at the party may have been involved in Martin’s death… Earlier this year, he posted a meme showing a hand flipping the middle finger. It reads: “Here’s my apology for being white.”

Another witness statement alleged that Wade and two others had murdered Martin, while another witness said Wade told him that “he did it.” A deputy said that the allegation was not supported by any evidence.

They chose violence.

It took less than two hours for the jury to overrule the county coroner and determine that the former football standout was killed by violent means. The finding means that investigators must now determine who is responsible for Martin’s death.

“I am happy,” exclaimed Martin’s mother, Kimberly Lotts. “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.”

It is possible that the jury was wrong. Maybe a 19-year-old kid took a handgun, drove 27 miles knowing a homeowner he had never met would be fishing in the middle of the night. Then, when everyone was partying, he somehow found the attic of this home he had never been in and killed himself.

That seems like a much more likely story than a man who publicly flaunted anti-Black tendencies committing an act of violence against a Black man. Who would you believe? The people who were there and literally said of Wade: “He did it,” or the word of a coroner whose findings are contradicted by a professional coroner, multiple witnesses and common sense?

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