FBI investigating hanging death of African-American man in Mississippi

Posted at 9:54 PM, Mar 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-19 21:54:21-04
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The hanging death of an African-American man who had been missing since early this month and was found Thursday by local authorities in Mississippi has drawn the scrutiny of the FBI and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

The sheriff’s office in Claiborne County, Mississippi, had organized a search for the man, who had been missing since March 2 and was reported missing March 8. Authorities said the man’s body was found with a bed sheet tied around his neck and a skull cap on his head, hanging from a tree. The man’s hands were not tied up.

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jason Pack said that it’s unclear how the man died, and “it is too early to say what happened and speculate.”

“We don’t know what happened out there, if it is a suicide, a homicide, that is why we investigate these types of cases to determine exactly what happened,” he told CNN affiliate WAPT.

The FBI and Mississppi Bureau of Investigations have not released the man’s name, but a law enforcement official said he’s believed to be 54-year-old Otis Byrd, and both the Claiborne County chapter of the NAACP and family members have confirmed his identity.

The body was found hanging from a tree 500 yards southwest of a house belonging to Byrd’s family.

According to a family member who did not want to be identified, Byrd was a “good, hard-working man” who had held various jobs, including on an oil rig, since his release from prison. The family member acknowledged that he served time in prison for murder, but said had been upstanding citizen since his release.

He was churchgoer who occasionally went to the casino, the family member said.

Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas said, however, that though the family believed it was Byrd, they hadn’t been allowed near the crime scene

The sheriff told CNN affiliate WAPT that he had instructed the Fish and Wildlife search and rescue team to search the part of the woods where the man was found, and “they found a deceased person.”

“This is the first time I have witnessed anything like this in Claiborne County,” he said.

According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, Byrd was convicted in 1980 for murdering a woman. He was paroled in 2006.

At this point there are two parallel investigations: one by local authorities into the death, and one by the FBI into whether there may be any federal civil rights violations. The FBI has a forensics team on the scene in Mississippi in part because the bureau has responsibility for federal civil rights law.

The Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi are also investigating the death, according to a spokeswoman for the Justice Department.

The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation is also on the scene, according to a statement from the FBI.

“Earlier in the day, the Claiborne County Sheriffs Department and the Mississippi Wildlife Fisheries and Parks conducted a ground search for a man who had been missing since early March. Officers located a man hanging in the woods near Roddy Road a half mile from his last known residence,” according to the FBI statement.

“The sheriff’s department contacted the MBI and FBI for forensic and investigative assistance. Investigators are currently processing the scene for evidence to determine the cause and manner of death ,” according to the FBI.

The state NAACP is calling for a full investigation into the death.

“Considering Mr. Byrd’s body was found hanging from a tree, we are calling on federal authorities to immediately investigate to determine whether his death is a result of a racial hate crime,” stated Derrick Johnson, state president Mississippi NAACP.