JACKSON, Miss. - The family of a black man found hanging in a tree last year in the Mississippi Delta said Thursday that they have evidence to prove he didn't commit suicide, despite authorities' contentions that he did.
Relatives of 26-year-old Frederick Jermaine Carter held a news conference in Jackson to demand a federal investigation. Carter was found Dec. 3, hanging from a tree in a field near Greenwood.
The family's lawyer, Valerie Hicks-Powe, said a private medical examiner performed an autopsy on Carter's body. She said the state's failure to release physical evidence and a full autopsy report to the family is delaying the private examiner's report.
Hicks-Powe said the private examiner needs to see the state's toxicology report, photos and the rope found at the scene. She would not provide the examiner's name or details about the evidence the family claims to have.
"I will say, however, that there is evidence that is now currently undeveloped that will support reason to believe that a hate crime took place," she said.
Hicks-Powe said she saw bruises on Carter's body, which she claims contradict authorities' findings there was no evidence of a struggle.
Mississippi authorities say Carter had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts and was not taking his medication when he killed himself. Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks said the FBI assisted in his investigation and found no evidence of a federal crime. The FBI did not immediately respond to requests Thursday for information about the case.
Banks said the family has not shared any information they may have, and have not provided details about the private medical examination.
"They've been saying from the beginning they have evidence, but they haven't provided it to us," Banks said.
Mississippi's history of racial strife could be a leading reason why doubts linger when a black man is found hanged.
"I think if this had happened in Massachusetts, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Banks said.
Mark Potok, who tracks white supremacy and other hate groups at the Southern Poverty Law Center, says several cases of black men committing suicide over the past decade have been alleged to be lynchings, but ultimately lacked any evidence for such a charge.
"This is the same kind of story that has been told again and again over the last 10 years, and in no case has it turned out to be true," said Potok.
The hanging death of Roy Veal, a Washington state resident, near his mother's Wilkinson County home in 2004 was widely reported as a lynching, despite a U.S. attorney, Mississippi's top FBI agent and a local black sheriff all disputing the claim.
Potok said there hasn't been a known in lynching in Mississippi in at least three decades.
While authorities say all indicators point to suicide in the death of Carter, there has been no official ruling on the manner of death. To make matters worse, there's confusion over who will make that decision.
Leflore County Coroner Debra Sanders said Thursday that the cause of death is asphyxia by hanging, but manner of death is pending investigation. Manner of death will fall into one of several categories: accident, homicide, natural, suicide or undetermined.
Sanders said the FBI would determine the manner of death. But the FBI has said in the past that its only role in the case is assisting the sheriff's office.
The sheriff said the state medical examiner would determine the manner of death. But state medical examiner Dr. Adel Shaker told The Associated Press on Thursday that law enforcement must release the manner of death.
Shaker said Carter died by hanging. He said he sticks by his finding, though he wouldn't give an opinion on whether it was suicide.
The coroner and sheriff stand by earlier statements that Carter took his own life.
"His clothing was intact. There was nothing out of place. His shirt was tucked into his pants with a belt on. His hands were not tied. There was nothing in disarray," Sanders said.
Banks said investigators found links of rope in Carter's pocket that matched the strand around his neck. A toxicology test showed Carter did not have his prescribed medication is his system, the sheriff said.
Carter's family acknowledges he had a history of mental illness, but that doesn't mean he killed himself.
"To the extent any mental issues existed, that alone is insufficient to support suicide," said Hicks-Powe.
Banks said it appeared that Carter used the old wood frame of a table to reach a limb then tied the rope to the limb and his neck. Carter either kicked off the table or it gave way, the sheriff contends.
"The FBI has been with us from day one," Banks said. "They haven't opened a case. They say they can't open a case unless there's evidence of hate crime, but they've found no evidence of that."
Lawmakers at the press conference questioned Banks' evidence. State Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, said the limb was too high for Carter to have hanged himself. Rep. Willie J. Perkins, also a Democrat
from Greenwood, said the table was rotten and would have been unable to support Carter's weight. "It's just dead wood. Anyone touch it, they're going to fall immediately through," he said.
Jordan, who went to the scene the day the body was found, said he believes Carter was killed elsewhere and his body was hanged from the tree as a cover-up.
The Official Frederick
Weds. 3/30/2011 @ 9pm c/10pm e/ 7pm p*** W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Radio: Seeing Justice @ Daylight: Frederick Jermaine Carter Hanging Update
(3/29/2011) Operation Help Civil Rights Group's Press Conference On Frederick Jermaine Carter's Autopsy Results
(3/25/2011) Breaking News! Dr. Adel Shaker: Frederick Jermaine Carter's Death Ruled A Hanging And Not A Suicide.