A Family Reclaims the Right to Grieve for a Son Shot by Police
The 21-year-old man lay with his hands crossed left over right against white billows of satin in a dark coffin. He looked like a buried marionette, with lusterless skin and a sunken chest. A dark seam from the autopsy ran around the equator of his closely shorn head.
A procession of teenage girls walked into the peaked wooden chapel, tottering on red spike heels and clutching each other's hands. They began to cry loudly when they reached the casket. One girl could be heard above the rest. Her high voice whined and cracked. She wailed like the mother of a child killed in a faraway war zone. But Trina, the dead man's cousin, is just 16. She wore a commemorative RIP T-shirt and low-rise, cropped khaki Dickies. Turning away, she covered her eyes. "I can't see it. I can't go," she said, and stumbled out of the room.
Police say Samuel Stephon Curry had been in the process of robbing a man at gunpoint around 9:00 p.m. on January 26, when an off-duty King County Sheriff's officer intervened, announcing his presence and pulling his weapon. Instead of dropping the gun, police say, Curry swung toward the officer, still aiming. The officer shot twice, hitting Curry in the torso. He died at the scene.
In 1985, when Stephanie Curry went into labor at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, Oregon, her son came out so easily and quickly that his father insisted on adding another name, Boom, to the birth certificate. Samuel Stephon Boom Curry died just as easily and quickly.
Stephanie Curry learned of her son's death on January 27, when a chaplain showed up at her doorstep. The family is still trying to get information from police. They have tried to avoid media accounts of the shooting, most of which have focused on the officer's heroism, the robbery victim's good luck, and the criminal record of the dead man.
The story that hurt the most was a February 3 piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about the man Curry had tried to rob. Identified only as John, he had been on a first date. "I don't want to sound glib..." he told the reporter, "But if you're nervous about going on a first date, and you get robbed on the way, you're not nervous about the date anymore." He expressed only passing remorse for his assailant's family. "At times I feel bad for his family," he said, "but I feel he made a mistake, and life's not a game."
The articles that mentioned Curry specifically focused on the discovery of his criminal record. He was wanted on a warrant for failing to appear at a domestic-violence hearing and had four arrests for minor assaults, all involving attacks against his mother in 2001. The articles don't delve into the nature of the attacks, though court papers depict a family struggling to deal with a tormented and volatile son. Stephanie says the warrant was issued when her son missed a court date on a snow day.
"He wasn't perfect, like any child," says Stephanie, a nurse. "But he was my son. He was my baby." The family had long struggled with Samuel Curry's temper. But the news accounts were like a public shaming, like the world saying they had no right to grieve because Curry had done wrong.
Stories about men like Curry are rarely told.
Stephanie doesn't want to talk about the family's private struggles. She wants her son to have what other men have in death: a positive eulogy. "I don't want anything negative said about Sam," she says. "I want him to be portrayed as a hero."
Curry grew up in a highly structured household. His father, Stephen, was in the army and demanded regimental obedience from his children. He took his family from Eugene to North Carolina and eventually to Houston, Texas. When Stephanie and Stephen parted ways, Sam and his two brothers moved to Seattle with their mom.
Stephanie wants the media to focus on her son's devotion to athletics rather than the few dings on his criminal record. Although he never graduated, Curry ran track and played football at Rainier Beach High School. He played basketball on local rec teams and competed in East Coast tournaments with teammates who went on to make it big, like ex-Huskies star Nate Robinson. More recently, his high-school glories long past, Sam was training to compete as an amateur boxer and proudly displayed his carved abs and biceps.
Whenever someone did something nice for him, Curry would say, "I 'preciate it."
Laprell Curry, 25, says his younger brother's killing was part of a genocide against black men in America. In 2002, the black male homicide rate was nearly six times the rate for white men. If the officer who shot Curry is cleared of wrongdoing in an upcoming inquest, the death will not be counted as one of those casualties.
Stephanie didn't put an announcement for her son's funeral in the papers. Nonetheless, on February 7, the chapel at the Marlatt Funeral Home in Kent was crowded with mourners from as far away as Texas and Mississippi. Many members of the far-flung family hadn't seen one another since grandma Hazel Henderson died in 1995. Everyone vowed it wouldn't take a death to bring them together again.
The service stretched on for two full hours. There were gospel hymns, a poem read by a natty old man in a denim suit, and a montage of grainy photographs from the 1980s. At the conclusion, Curry's stepfather, a Pentecostal minister, invited the audience to come up and share memories.
The first to speak offered brief recollections, warm but unspecific. When Laprell took his turn, he asked his family to talk about "the real Sam"—the one who rolled skinny blunts, "but would always share"; the one all the girls wanted, but who couldn't figure out how to flirt. Laprell, who raps under the name Pearl, has made it his mission to push against what he sees as the blaspheming of his brother's name.
"He would give you his last, man," Laprell told the mourners in the pews. "If he had 10 dollars, he'd say, 'Here's 10,' or at least, 'Here's 9 of it.'"
Curry's cousin Trina approached the mic with a group of girlfriends. Through steady tears, she spoke about how her cousin watched out for her around older guys in the neighborhood. "He'd be like, 'Who be messin' with you, Trina?' I'd say, 'Nobody, Sammy, nobody.'"
While the young cousins relished Curry's strong sense of self, his love for a good smoke and a funny movie, members of the older, church-going generation shared a heavier message.
Curry's stepfather, David Barton, runs the Jesus King Jesus Christian Center, a storefront church on Rainier Avenue. He delivered a eulogy shot through with hints at the cause of the downfall of so many young black men. Aiming his eyes toward a row of young men in red caps at the back of the room, he condemned marijuana and gangster life. He even turned his stare toward his wife and Curry's father. "Sam never recovered from leaving his real father," he intoned. "Divorce is death."
Amens rose from the pews.
Curry's lawyer spoke about how the press had misrepresented his client. "Whatever has been said is just not true," he announced to loud applause.
The funeral procession ferried Curry's body (gold grills still snapped in) to a hilltop cemetery. Women's heels sank into the mud. The crowd sang a hymn and watched a dozen white doves fly out of a wire crate and into the sky.
After the ceremony, Stephanie Curry told me she still hasn't received a complete police report, 911 records, or her son's autopsy. "Just give us the facts," she said. "All we want is the facts."
Police will not release their records until after an investigation is complete. "I wanna trust them," Stephanie said. "But I don't. I don't."
A few days later, I met Curry's mom, his brother, and a half-sister, who is also named Stephanie Curry, outside the Starbucks at Pike Place Market, just steps above the scene of the shooting. Laprell bought a $30 bouquet and asked the flower lady for several yards of twine. We walked down through the market and onto Western Avenue, where a signpost marks the site of Curry's death. Laprell and his mom have brought flowers here on three different occasions, but each time the arrangement disappears within a day. A passing neighbor said she keeps seeing new bouquets, including one left by a white couple. Curry's mother wondered if it was the cop who shot her son.
Laprell secured the fresh flowers to the pole with knots of twine.
Curry's mother knew something was wrong with her son in the weeks before he died. Actually, nothing had been right for months. "I think the last couple weeks I was more worried than anything," Stephanie said, leaning against the concrete wall of a condo tower. "There was something going on that wasn't quite right. Something strange. It was in his behavior."
Back in 2005, Curry had moved into an apartment near his mom's house. "He had been doing really well on his own," Stephanie said. He had been studying for his GED and getting part-time work through Labor Ready.
Then, in March 2006, he was charged with assault for attacking his pregnant girlfriend, Shayla Thomas, and threatening her mother. The entire Curry family disputes the domestic-violence charges, saying prosecutors misconstrued the events. Thomas has a criminal record that eclipses Curry's, with juvenile cases for attacking two boys with a kitchen knife and a drain pipe in 2001, and, in 2004, for punching a woman in the face and for stealing a car.
A judge slapped Curry with a restraining order in April 2006.
That same month, Shayla gave birth to a boy. She insisted on naming her son after his father, Stephanie said. Samuel Stephon Curry Jr. was born with amniotic band syndrome, a congenital birth defect that causes webbed digits and underdeveloped limbs. The baby required frequent doctor's appointments and daily care at home.
Stephanie believes her son's conflicts with Thomas had something to do with his concerns about the care of his own child.
"The main thing he wanted was to protect his child," Stephanie said. "He wanted to make sure that his baby was okay, so he was doing everything he could do. I think he had fear that the mom would not do the best job."
About five months ago, Curry moved back in with his mom, into the small white house in South Seattle with red trim and an old church organ in the front room. Stephanie could tell her son was trying to figure out what to do with his life. "He was searching for knowledge," his mother said. "He was searching for different things. He was just searching."
Curry became obsessed with reading Revelation in the Bible and started attending services at his stepfather's church. But in recent months he'd also explored a different path. Stephanie discovered that, months prior, her son had begun sneaking out of the tiny church to make inquiries at a mosque down the street.
"We believe Jesus is it. The father, the son, and the holy ghost," Stephanie said, shaking her head and laughing. Turning to Islam was a meaningful rebellion for a young man raised in charismatic, fire-and-brimstone churches.
All that mattered, Stephanie said, is that Curry was "trying to live right." He may have struggled, she said, but he wasn't a street thug or gang member. Indeed, the robbery he's accused of committing in his last moments clashes with his previous record of minor family disputes.
"Sam didn't deserve to die," Laprell said.
Stephanie told me it is hard to mourn when her son has been publicly condemned, deemed worthy of an early death. And then there are all the unanswered questions.
For one, she doesn't think police gave the press the right information. She saw her son's body. He had two bullet wounds in his side, making it hard for her to believe he was aiming his gun at anyone when he was shot.
Curry's half-sister believes he could have survived. A resident of a condo overlooking the scene of the shooting watched the incident from his window. He approached the family and told them police never gave Curry first aid—that they went through his pockets, then stood around filling out paper- work. Police said they did perform CPR, but would not provide specific details.
"It doesn't make sense," Stephanie said. "Someone should check all the phone records and see who made the 911 call. Where was the ambulance? What time? If they would've gotten him to the hospital in time... he was a big guy—he woulda made it. Instead they just left him here while all the police checked through his pockets, did all their paperwork—and the ambulance never came. They never gave him a chance for survival."