ELMORE CITY — Sitting together on the leather sofa in their living room, hands clasped between them, Joe and Donna Turner say their 12-year battle to find out how their daughter died is as much about justice as it is about clearing her name.
Underneath a wooden sign that reads, “All Things Are Possible,” Donna Turner's eyes well up as she remembers the days leading up to the July 12, 2000, death of her daughter Chanda.
The two went shopping the previous Saturday, and the family celebrated a grandmother's birthday on Sunday. Mom and daughter's last conversation before her Wednesday death was about a looming medical appointment.
Donna Turner said her daughter showed no sign she wanted to kill herself and was planning to attend paralegal school in the fall.
“She said, ‘I'll call you tomorrow when I make the appointment,'” Turner remembered. “That was her state of mind just a few hours before her death.”
Cause of death questioned
Chanda's boyfriend told investigators he was sleeping when she shot herself in the chest, and that he discovered her body leaning against the door frame outside.
She had been shot at close range. Gunpowder on her right hand — plus an abrasion on her left, and the position of the wound — all pointed to suicide, according to a report filed by the medical examiner's office.
But the Turners say that decision was made by an inexperienced investigator who gave too much credence to the sheriff's deputies who went to the scene.
Photos taken of the crime scene demonstrate there may have been a violent struggle before the shooting and that Chanda's body may have been moved, said the Turners' attorney, Jaye Mendros.
A crime scene log and witness statements indicate the crime scene was not secure, Mendros said, and that someone may have cleaned up the scene.
“It became very apparent that she had been allowed to die before law enforcement even arrived,” Mendros said.
Because no autopsy was done and the medical examiner's report indicated Chanda died by her own hand, the family had no recourse for demanding further investigation.
The former sheriff, Bob Davis, is now dead, but the district attorney at the time, Tim Kuykendall, works as a private attorney in Norman.
Kuykendall said he thought the Turner case was suspicious, but suspicion was not enough to open a homicide investigation. He hired an investigator in 2002 to review the case but never filed charges.
“I think one of the biggest problems that we were having in terms of prosecuting it at the time was the medical examiner at that point in time would not say it was a homicide,” Kuykendall said Wednesday. “When you take a case to trial and you present it to a jury, and you ask them to find someone guilty and your own star witness says, well, I'm not even sure there's a homicide — you won't win a case like that.”
In 2009, a new district attorney, Greg Mashburn, agreed to allow Turner's body to be exhumed and autopsied.
Dr. Collie Trant with the medical examiner's office did the work under the observance of Dr. Robert Bux, medical examiner and coroner for El Paso County in Colorado. Both men are convinced Chanda Turner's death was a homicide.
Trant and Bux said the 2002 investigation indicated the scene was cleaned up before law officers arrived. Statements made by witnesses since have validated many of the suspicions, and the position of the body and gunshot wound are not consistent with suicide, they said.
“The bottom line is, if you look at the evidence, this is so obviously not a suicide and so obviously fishy,” Trant said.
But Trant was fired from his job before amending the death certificate, and the manner of death remained on record as suicide.
A grand jury convened by Mashburn to review that case and two other suspicious deaths in Garvin County declined to take it up.
Mashburn said the grand jury did recommend the local sheriff and police departments include Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation in similar cases in the future, a measure by which most departments now comply.
“That's what you see now in McClain and Garvin counties, but Garvin County in particular — to call outside agencies to remove this stigma,” Mashburn said. “I think law enforcement has gotten better, but I also think them teaming up with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation has really gone a long way to help some of those situations that previously happened not to happen again.”
The Turners had more success lobbying the state to reform the medical examiner's office. Last year, the state Legislature passed a law that allows families to appeal medical examiner findings.
It was a settlement in the Turners' appeal of the suicide ruling that led to the amendment of her death certificate from suicide to manner undetermined and, ultimately, allowed the new county sheriff to reopen the investigation.
Amy Elliott, spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office, said the decision to amend the death certificate was made after speaking with people involved with the case and “based on a variety of both old and new information provided.”
She said this is not the first time the office has changed a cause and/or manner of death on a death certificate.