Published November 20, 2015
The body of a black man found hanging in a tree in Mississippi has been sent from a state crime lab to a funeral home, but the FBI said it will be days before autopsy results are complete. Until then, investigators are holding off on saying whether Otis Byrd was killed or took his own life, and they're urging people to be patient.
"The community deserves answers. Specifically, the family deserves answers," Don Alway, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Jackson, told a crowd Friday outside the Claiborne County Courthouse in Port Gibson. He said preliminary information about the cause of death is expected next week.
"We're doing everything in our power to be transparent, to talk about what's going on so far," Alway said. "But we want to reiterate that individual, single pieces of information and bits of rumors, we're going to hold off on speaking to those until we can collectively come to a conclusion and get you the truth that everybody deserves."
The county coroner confirmed that the man found hanging from a white sheet Thursday was Byrd, a 54-year-old ex-convict who was reported missing by his family more than two weeks ago. Byrd lived just 200 yards from the spot where his body was found, in woods behind his house.
Alway said investigators are interviewing Byrd's family and friends and searching his rental home and a storage unit for clues.
"We are trying to paint a picture of Byrd's life. We are trying to find out what was going on with him personally and professionally," he said.
Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas Sr. told The Associated Press earlier Friday that Byrd did not appear to have stepped off of anything in the area where he was found hanging by a sheet from a tree limb about 12 feet high. His feet were dangling about 2 feet off the ground, and his hands were not bound, Lucas said.
"Life matters," Lucas told the crowd at the courthouse where he appeared with Alway. "I commit to you, as the sheriff of Claiborne County, that I will not allow the shadows of the past to cast a shadow on the future."
Byrd's body was released on Friday to a Port Gibson funeral home, said Mississippi Department of Public Safety spokesman Warren Strain. An employee at Rollins Funeral Home said funeral arrangements will be made early next week.
Byrd worked on offshore oil rigs and enjoyed gambling in casinos in his off time after getting out of prison, where he served 26 years for fatally shooting a woman while robbing $101 from her convenience store in 1980.
He wasn't the type to kill himself, friends and family said.
"He tried to turn his life around. He was going to church every Sunday," said his stepsister, Tracy Wilson.
Lora McDaniel, a high school classmate who went to church with Byrd and his family, said "he always had a smile on his face. I just can't see him committing suicide."
"He was a quiet man. He didn't bother nobody," added Anita Smith, another high school classmate. "He had been out nine years and all of the sudden this happens to him? Impossible."
Smith said she is planning to participate in a march Monday in Port Gibson to protest Byrd's death.
Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson said he doesn't want people to rush to judgment.
"We just want to make sure there's a thorough federal, state and local investigation," Johnson said.
The hanging is being investigated by the FBI, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney's office as well as the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. These officials are on the scene to determine if it's a potential hate crime or other violation of federal law, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said.
Claiborne County sits on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, with Natchez to the south and Vicksburg to the north. About 85 percent of the county's 9,250 residents are African-American.
Port Gibson is in the district of U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat and the only black member of Mississippi's congressional delegation. He issued a statement calling on the government to use "every resource available to bring swift justice" if foul play was involved.
"Given the history of the state, it is unavoidable that the hanging of a black man in Mississippi justifiably engenders deeply raw emotions," Thompson said.