'I'm not a robot': South Carolina coroner fights for change amid murder and misunderstanding

It's a sight seldom seen today in America: A chief coroner going to a murder scene and personally addressing an angry crowd of protesters.

But that's precisely what Naida Rutherford, the Richland County Coroner in South Carolina, did a day after the fatal shooting Sunday of a Black teen suspected of shoplifting by an Asian convenience store owner in Columbia.

Rutherford, who is Black, tried to quell the unrest and explain the facts from her investigation at the otherwise peaceful protest of about 70 people yelling for justice. She wanted to knock down "false narratives" on social media about the shooting. Among the misconceptions she wanted to dispel: that the teen was stealing from the store; that he was waving a gun around; and that he had his hands in the air when he was shot by police. None of those are facts, Rutherford said.

"I took it upon myself" to bring truth to the public narrative, Rutherford recalled to USA TODAY before starting her shift Thursday. "It was the right thing to do."

Standing near gas station pumps, Rutherford told a crowd the day after the shooting that the teen's shooting was murder, a homicide in fact and not accidental, statements that the crowd might have missed her saying during a press conference earlier that day.

"I wanted them to hear the truth from me about what happened. I didn't try to sensationalize it. I wanted to set the record straight," Rutherford said. "I've already been publicly criticized for showing my emotions about this case, but I'm not a robot. I'm human."

And that's what puts Rutherford in a unique position of coroner and a change agent by her choice.

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Naida Rutherford, the coroner in Richland County South Carolina, (r), welcomes the community to ask her frank questions about her job.

South Carolina coroner differs from those typically in her position

As a publicly elected female Black coroner, Rutherford is in a scarce space from those typically holding her job. More than 50% of all coroners in the U.S. are men, compared to 49% who are women, according to online researcher Zippia.com. In terms of race, more than 60% of coroners are White, 15% Latino, nearly 11% percent Black and 8% Asian, Zippia sai

Before becoming coroner, Rutherford was a nurse practitioner living in Columbia, South Carolina. Affected by the fatal shooting of George Floyd and its global aftermath in 2020, she decided to run for the local county coroner spot. Considered a longshot, and running on a platform promising to be more community-oriented and transparent, Rutherford defeated the incumbent Gary Watts who had been the county coroner for 20 years.

While public interaction is nothing new to her, as coroner Rutherford is broadening a typically reserved role that requires them in fatal shooting cases to state a person's cause of death after an autopsy, curb public comments and maybe testify in court, said Errol Southers, an associate senior vice president of Safety and Risk Assurance at the University of Southern California and vice president of the Los Angeles Police Commission.

"You've got an innovative person here who has taken a 'whole of community' approach to the coroner's office and broken a couple of glass ceilings in terms of race and gender in the process," Southers said about Rutherford. "That's what we want to see in public safety. Educate people and make them more aware. It's refreshing."

Rutherford can also rely on her nursing skills as a coroner, said Nakita Barnes, an assistant nursing professor at the University of South Carolina where Rutherford got her master's degree in 2015.

"She's putting the best of her skillset to use," Barnes said about Rutherford. "Her communication skills that come from being a nurse, knowing how to be empathetic to patients, to families, takes a level of sensitivity because when we think about death and dying, that's something no one really wants to discuss."

'How could this happen?'They called 911 for help. Police arrived. They ended up shot or dead.

Coroner created a program to share her expertise with teens

Barnes said Rutherford has carved her own niche by creating "Coroner's Cadet," a two-week summer program where area high school students get simulated hands-on experiences on topics including death investigations, Forensic Science, body recovery, and how to connect with grieving families.

A mother to two teenage boys, Rutherford, said she was once homeless after graduating from high school in Florida and eventually found her way to South Carolina and moved in with her best friend's family. They saved her, she said. She has created a safety list for parents, urging them to "plan for their future, not their funeral."

Rutherford constantly tells youth that not everybody can be the next LeBron James or Beyonce. The cadet program is her way of helping youths stay focused and not go wayward which could lead to making wrong decisions that could even include death.

"I tell them that you can't always be everything you want to be," Rutherford said. "But you can be anything you're willing to work towards."

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Coroner also took to social media to deliver facts about teen's fatal shooting

It wasn't so much that Rutherford showed up to tell protesters that convenience store owner Rick Chow, 58, gunned down 14-year-old Cyrus Carmack-Belton and that the shooter will likely face murder charges.

Rutherford told them there was no indication of a fight or altercation between Carmack-Belton and the store owners before the teen left the store. But, carrying a gun, Chow and his son chased Carmack-Belton. The teen fell, then got back up.

She told them that there was no evidence the teen was brandishing a gun or threatened the store owner with one. "I didn't see anything that deserved that type of reaction," Rutherford remembered telling the protesters.

Rutherford also took to Instagram to tell her 14,000 followers in a nine-minute video exactly how she felt about the shooting as a coroner and perhaps, more importantly, as a mother.

"The video footage that we have seen shows him picking some items up, not stealing them, and then he politely and quickly placed the items back where he found them," Rutherford said, telling followers that Chow was taken into custody.

He was charged with murder.

Rutherford understands the community is outraged and "cannot imagine" what Carmack-Belton's family must feel. A small group of protesters would later vandalize the store, despite Rutherford's pleas.

"Please ya'll, I am begging you, do not create more trauma for this family. In every group, there is an agitator, always somebody who wants to take to, you know, more violent approach to things," Rutherford said. "Listen, no lives need to be lost. Tearing up the store, tearing up the property, being violent in the protest is not going to help us get justice for Cyrus."

She said people ask her all the time how does she do her job. Rutherford replied while on the verge of tears.

"I’m gonna tell ya’ll, I have a son that age. He could be my son," Rutherford said. "Do you guys understand that? He could be any of our kids."

Rutherford told her followers she would rather be inundated with messages and to reach out directly if they have any questions.

Embedded content: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cs1rDWrorp7/?hl=en

On Thursday, Rutherford reiterated that she doesn't want to see "Black lives lost, all lives lost," calling Sunday's shooting "gut-wrenching." She remains more determined to "meet people where they are" to help prevent violence.

"I’ve birthed babies and helped people take their last breath as they experience death and I’ve been able to expand that role as the coroner," Rutherford said. "This job pushes me and makes me get out of bed every morning with a strong purpose to help people."

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