Lawyers hired by the family of a black man who was found hanging in Mississippi said Wednesday that they are hiring independent experts, including a high-profile forensic pathologist, to conduct an investigation separate from the one pursued by state and federal authorities.
Otis Byrd, 54, was found hanging by a sheet from a tree near his home in the small southwestern Mississippi town of Port Gibson on March 19. Authorities are trying to determine if he was killed or took his own life. He had been reported missing about two weeks before he was found.
“At this point, the family believes that it’s not suicide,” attorney Dennis Sweet IV said during a news conference in Jackson.
The FBI told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the agency shared autopsy results with the Byrd family on March 24, five days after his body was found. Agents have not released that information to the public and would not do so Wednesday.
Attorney Dennis Sweet III said the family has not given autopsy results to him or the other attorneys. Byrd’s relatives did not attend the news conference because they are grieving and want privacy, attorneys said.
Don Alway, special agent in charge of the FBI in Jackson, said in a statement hours before the attorneys’ news conference: “At each milestone in this case, the FBI’s first step is to personally brief family members. … Our team will continue to do so with any new development.”
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Jason Pack, supervisory special agent for the FBI in Jackson, said autopsy results are only one part of determining how Byrd died. Pack said agents are awaiting results of tests from the FBI forensic laboratory.
“Unlike forensic testing in television crime dramas, real testing requires time to complete,” Pack said.
The family had Byrd’s body cremated after the state medical examiner completed an autopsy. Sweet III acknowledged that will create a challenge for an independent pathologist being brought into the case, Dr. Michael Baden of New York. Baden can still examine blood samples and evidence taken from the site where the body was found.
“Of course, he was disappointed that the body was cremated,” Sweet III said.
Baden last year conducted an autopsy on the body of Michael Brown, a black man who was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Baden did so at the request of the legal team for Brown’s family.
In 2000, Baden was brought to Mississippi by state authorities to help investigate after a black teenager was found hanging by a tree in another south Mississippi community, Kokomo. Baden said that death, in his opinion, was self-inflicted and not a lynching.
Mississippi NAACP president Derrick Johnson said the civil-rights group supports the Byrd family’s effort to have an independent investigation.
“We ask for a thorough and complete investigation,” Johnson said at the attorneys’ news conference. “We feel that the family should receive answers. There have been concerns we have not received all the answers at this time.”
Sweet III said attorneys will file Freedom of Information requests to seek investigative records and will establish an estate for Byrd, which will give them power to issues subpoenas to seek information about him and the investigation. He said the family is not criticizing the FBI, but they just want full information.
“This family is very appreciative of the efforts of law enforcement,” Sweet III said.
A call to Byrd’s sister, Florine Hodge, was not answered Wednesday, and it was not possible to leave a message seeking comment from her. A call to Byrd’s stepsister, Tracy Wilson, was not immediately returned.