PORT GIBSON, Mississippi — An African-American man is found hanging from a tree in the Mississippi woods with bedsheets around his neck attached to a limb 15 feet above the ground. There’s no chair in sight. His feet are 2 to 3 feet off the ground. His hands are not bound.
Is this a suicide? Or is it a lynching — a shadow from the South’s history of racial violence re-emerging?
In this story
- Authorities expect to receive a preliminary report next week on what caused Otis Byrd's death.
- "I don't want the community to go excited saying it was a white-on-black thing. That's the worst thing that can happen, is people making it into a race issue," the sheriff said. "And that's my biggest fear. And I don't want that to happen."
- No one has given any indication publicly whether Byrd had enemies.
Those were the big questions Friday, one day after authorities found a man’s body with bedsheets around his neck in Port Gibson, a small town of just over 1,500 people in rural Claiborne County, about 60 miles southwest of Jackson, the state capital.
Evidence collected so far doesn’t suggest foul play in the death, law enforcement officials said. For that reason, suicide is the early theory as the likely manner of death, the officials said.
Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas on Friday identified the man as Otis Byrd. Even though authorities have confirmed his name, they still have a lot of work ahead to figure out how Byrd died and who is responsible.
“It could take a week, it could take two weeks, it could take months,” Lucas said.
Found in woods 500 yards behind house
Authorities expect to receive a preliminary report next week on what caused Byrd’s death, Donald Alway, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Jackson, said Friday afternoon at a press conference.
He said 30 agents from the FBI, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and other agencies are looking for friends and family of the victim “that might help paint a picture on the cause of death of Mr. Byrd.”
Agents have finished searching the area where the body was found and are looking at a “storage location” Byrd owned that might yield information, Alway said.
Alway said the FBI is communicating with the family and won’t comment on rumors circulating about the death.
“The community deserves answers,” he said. “The family deserves answers.”
The body was found at 10:21 a.m. Thursday, deep in a forest about 500 yards from the house Byrd was renting, according to Lucas. A skullcap had been pulled over his head, the sheriff said.
That house was the last place where Byrd had been seen on March 2, according to the sheriff. He was reported missing a week later, spurring a search.
The body was found by staffers from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks who were taking part in the search, Lucas said.
Thursday was the first time authorities looked specifically in the wooded area where the body was found, according to the sheriff.
Family member: Otis Byrd was acting fine
A family member who did not want to be identified said Byrd was not acting out of the ordinary in the days before he went missing.
He went to church, he worked and occasionally ventured to a casino, according to the family member, who described Byrd as a “good, hardworking man.”
Byrd had been in prison. He was convicted in 1980 of murdering a woman, but was paroled in 2006, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
No one has given any indication publicly whether Byrd had enemies.
Sheriff: ‘Biggest fear’ is death was racially motivated
What distinguishes a suicidal hanging from a lynching?
Thomas Martin, a veteran crime scene investigator and president of Crime Scene Forensics LLC, said he knew nothing about the Mississippi case but had investigated other deaths by hanging or strangulation.
Injuries to the dead person indicate lynching, he said, because it means the dead person struggled with other people before being hanged.
When people are strangled by somebody else, investigators sometimes find the deceased has grabbed at the ligature and left finger marks and even bits of fingernails around his neck, he said.
The direction of the ligature is another indicator, Martin said. When people hang themselves, the rope often rides up directly behind the ears, he said. When a person is hanged by other people, the ligature moves differently on the neck, he said.
Martin said these are general observations and that “the facts are what make or break the case.”
Mississippi NAACP chapter President Derrick Johnson issued a statement calling on “federal authorities to immediately investigate the hanging death of Mr. Otis Byrd.”
The FBI already is looking into any federal civil rights violations and has a forensics team on the scene. The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi are also investigating, according to a spokeswoman for the Justice Department.
The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation also is investigating.
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jason Pack told WAPT that “it’s too early to say what happened or speculate about the cause or the manner” of death.
“We don’t know what happened out there,” Pack said. “We don’t know if it was a suicide, if it was a homicide. That’s why we investigate these types of cases.”
Lucas, who is himself African-American, said Friday that he’s worried people will jump to the conclusion that Byrd was murdered and that race was a factor.
“I don’t want the community to go excited saying it was a white-on-black thing. That’s the worst thing that can happen, is people making it into a race issue,” Lucas said. “And that’s my biggest fear. And I don’t want that to happen.”