The strange death of Lennon Lacy: Another lynching mistaken for suicide?

The hanging death of 17-year-old Lennon Lacy was quickly ruled a suicide, but serious questions remain about whether it was in fact a lynching. The FBI is now looking into the case. (Photo from Justice for Lennon Lacy.)

On the morning of Aug. 29, the body of Lennon Lacy was found hanging from a noose fastened to a swing set at a trailer park in the small eastern North Carolina town of Bladenboro, about a half-mile from his family's home. A 17-year-old African-American junior and football player at West Bladen High School, Lacy was last seen leaving the house around 10:30 p.m. the previous evening to take a walk, as he often did. A 911 call came in at 7:25 a.m. the next day, a Friday.

"I need EMS," said the caller, a woman who got physically ill during the conversation. "I have a man hanging from a swing set … Bladen Rental Properties."

The dispatcher told the caller to cut down the person to see if he was breathing. He wasn't. The call ended with the dispatcher sending help as the distraught woman tried to loose the body.

The initial investigation into the death, conducted by a State Bureau of Investigation team working under the direction of the local district attorney, quickly concluded that Lacy's death was a suicide — too quickly, the N.C. NAACP charges.

The civil rights group has gotten involved in the case at the request of the Lacy family, who find it difficult to believe Lennon committed suicide. They say he was excited about playing his first varsity football game on the very day his body was discovered. They bristle over investigators' claim that he was suicidally depressed and say he was just experiencing normal grief over the recent death of his great-uncle. There are also questions about why if the teen were going to kill himself he would do so at a mostly white trailer park.

The NAACP questions whether the Lacy case is yet another instance of what it calls "quick call suicides" — suspicious hanging deaths of black men, most of them in the South, that were immediately classified as suicides without extensive investigations despite evidence that foul play may have been involved. This week the SBI said it has addressed all "viable" leads in the case but that it would still investigate any new information it gets.

"There was such a rush to say suicide," N.C. NAACP President Rev. William Barber said at a press conference held in Raleigh last month to announce the group had called on the U.S. Department of Justice to get involved in the case. "Questions remain. Have they been thoroughly investigated? If not, why?"

The group plans to hold a march in Bladenboro on Dec. 13 to draw attention to the case. If federal authorities agree to join the probe, the march will be a celebration, Barber said. If not, the event will honor Lacy.

Whose belts? Whose shoes?

As part of an effort to find answers to some of the questions about the teen's death, the N.C. NAACP retained the services of independent medical pathologist Dr. Christena Roberts of Hernando, Florida, to review the final report of N.C. Medical Examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch, who ruled the death asphyxia by hanging based on autopsy findings and information given to her by investigators.

Roberts' report is critical of actions of the law enforcement officials involved in the case and some of the conclusions they drew:

* Lacy showed no signs of being suicidal. While Lacy was sad about his great-uncle's passing, Roberts wrote, he did not express a desire to hurt himself or take any actions suggesting he was suicidal such as giving things away, and he did not write a suicide note or send any kind of goodbye message. In fact, the night before his body was found Lacy told an employee of the funeral home where his great-uncle's services were held how hard he had worked to improve his grades in order to make the football team and that he was finally being rewarded with the chance to play.

* The belts used to make the noose did not belong to Lacy. The noose was fashioned from a black canvas belt that was tied end to end to a blue canvas belt with a loop created through the D-type ring. Neither of the belts belonged to Lacy.

* The mechanics of the hanging are puzzling. Roberts observed:

One end of the swing set has a climbing platform attached. The noose was reportedly tied to the supporting cross beam (appears to be a 2 x 6") and then fed through a metal grommet that was screwed into the wood. This grommet was 22.5" away from the platform. Lennon was 69" tall. The height of the cross beam to the ground was 90". In a photo provided his brother who is 6'4" could not reach up and touch the beam. There were no swings on this swing set to act as a step to reach the beam. There was no item present at the scene that Lennon could have stood on, applied the noose and then kicked away. The only other way to reach the beam and grommet therefore had to be from the climbing platform. No measurements are available at this time for the noose … but it does not appear long enough to have been tied around the beam, fed through the grommet and still allow a large enough loop for him to be able to place over his head. The side structure of the platform is a rather small square that is further obstructed by the v-shaped vertical supports of the swing.

Roberts also noted that the person who called 911 said she was going to the cut the noose and get Lacy's body down. The photographs from the scene showed that the belts were tied together with a single cut to each at the tie point. "The other free ends of the belts are completely intact and have no secondary cuts," Roberts reported. "Only a very short piece of each belt extends past the tied area and could not have been tied around the cross beam. Note that when meeting with Dr. Radisch she stated that when she examined the belt she thought some portion must be missing because there was no secondary cut in either belt."

Roberts continued: "Lennon weighed 207 pounds and was reportedly completely suspended. It is very unlikely that a female could lift his body weight, support it for a prolonged period and untie the belt. Also, as she did not have anything to stand on she would have to be well over 6'6" to accomplish this from the ground. Note that funeral home personnel stated that it took 3 men to move Lennon while making preparations."

* Lacy was found wearing shoes that were not his own. When Lacy left his home for the last time. he was wearing gray athletic shoes in size 12. The local medical examiner reported that at the death scene Lacy was wearing white sneakers without laces; law enforcement photographs show they were a size 10.5. But Lacy's body was shoeless when it arrived at the medical examiner's office. Radisch told Roberts that she asked SBI about the shoes and they said it had been explained and would not elaborate.

Roberts wrote that Radisch told her "it was not the usual practice for police to remove clothing from the body before transport."

Another black man killed for crossing a race line?

Barber noted that Lacy's body was found one day and 59 years after the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American youth from Chicago, while he was visiting relatives in Mississippi. Till was tortured and killed after reportedly flirting with a white woman.

Till's murder was part of the United States' long history of lynchings — vigilante killings of mostly African Americans used to enforce white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation after the end of slavery. Between 1882 and 1968, more than 3,400 African Americans were lynched in the United States, according to statistics from the Tuskegee Institute archives. Most of those lynchings — 539 — took place in Mississippi, followed by Georgia with 492. In North Carolina, there were at least 86 lynchings of African Americans during that period.

"The images of a black boy or black man hanging from a rope are etched in the souls of all of us who know the history of this country," Barber said.

In its letter asking U.S. Attorney Thomas Walker to get involved with the Lacy investigation, the N.C. NAACP referred to "possible race-based animus toward Lennon and his family by some of their neighbors." The group declined to detail that claim during last month's press conference, saying only that it had passed along the information to the authorities.

But after Lacy's death, Atlanta-based sports blogger Jamie Walker wrote about playing high school football in Bladenboro against the backdrop of a Confederate flag that flew in a neighboring yard. And just a few years before Lacy died, a neighbor of the family was ordered by police to take down signs from his front yard saying, "Niggers keep out."

Adding to the intrigue surrounding Lacy's death is the fact that he had been in a relationship with a 31-year-old white woman who lived nearby. Lacy also attended a multiracial church, and Barber reported that "there are people in the community who have raised concerns" about these things.

'The unsettling thought that lynchings may still occur'

That Lacy died by hanging after being involved with a white woman connects his death to several others documented by filmmaker Keith Beauchamp in a 2012 Investigation Discovery show titled "The Injustice Files: At the End of a Rope." The show examined four suspicious hanging deaths of black men that were all ruled suicides but that many believe were in fact murders. (The entire episode is not available online, but clips from the show are available here.)

Beauchamp said at the time of the episode's airing that he hoped it would be "a huge awakening for many who will have to confront the unsettling thought that lynchings still may occur in this country."

One of the cases Beauchamp examined took place in New York state. In 2006, after chef Izell Parrott of Glen Falls had been missing for 14 months, his body was found hanging more than 30 feet up in a tree in the woods. His family and friends find it unlikely that a 61-year-old man would climb so high up in a tree to hang himself. A friend of his reported that there had been tensions in the community because of Parrott's friendships with white women, and that the letters "KKK" had been carved into a tree in his yard.

The other three cases Beauchamp profiled occurred below the Mason-Dixon Line. In 1986, the body of 19-year-old Keith Warren was found hanging from a tree near his home in Silver Spring, Maryland. His death was ruled a suicide without an autopsy, which forensic experts say should always be done in suicide cases. An EMT called to the scene has said he thought it was a lynching because of the elaborate rope configuration, which is unusual for a suicide, and because there was nothing for Warren to step off of to suspend himself. In addition, his family discovered from crime scene photographs that he was wearing clothing and shoes that were not his own.

Two of the cases profiled took place in the one-time lynching hotbed of Mississippi. One night in early January 2003, 23-year-old Nick Naylor of rural Kemper County, Mississippi left his home to walk his dogs; the dogs later returned but Naylor did not. He was eventually found hanging from a dog leash in an oak tree on the property of a hunting club. During the search for his body, one of the members of the hunting club told his family that maybe he "caught that early morning train" — what they understood to be code for a lynching.

The other case documented by Beauchamp — the death of Raynard Johnson in Kokomo, a rural community in Mississippi's Marion County — has striking similarities to Lacy's. Both involved 17-year-old high school football players who dated white women. Johnson had experienced harassment as a consequence of his relationships; relatives of a white woman Johnson had dated chased him off their property and threw bottles at him when he went to pick her up for a date.

On the evening of June 16, 2000, Johnson was home watching basketball on TV when he stepped outside around 9:30 p.m. His father returned home a short time later to find his son's body hanging from a pecan tree near the house.

The sheriff's deputies who investigated immediately ruled the death a suicide. But people who knew Johnson questioned that. For one thing, the family noted, Johnson had been looking forward to the community's big Juneteenth celebration that would take place the day after his death — not the behavior you would expect from a person who intended to kill himself.

Also, a neighbor reported seeing men in a pickup and a car park outside her house and confer before driving toward the Johnson house the night before Raynard died. She said they returned the night of his death, parked their vehicles, and walked down the road toward the Johnson property. And Johnson's brother reported hearing intruders in the woods at the edge of the family's property on the two nights before Raynard died, at one point even shooting his gun into the woods to scare them off. But investigators never spoke to him about it, he says.

In addition, Johnson was hung by a belt that was not his own, and there are questions about the mechanics. Johnson's case involved a partial hanging, as he was suspended so low that he could have stopped the asphyxiation by simply standing up, which raises the possibility that he was incapacitated and then hung. Beauchamp explores two theories of possible incapacity for which there is some evidence: that Johnson was first either Tasered, or suffocated with a plastic bag and then suspended.

Something else that the Lacy and Johnson cases have in common is the involvement of civil rights leaders. Following Johnson's death, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Mississippi NAACP called for a federal investigation and organized a march to draw attention to the case. But 14 years after the incident and more than two years after Beauchamp's documentary aired, Johnson's death is still considered a suicide, while unanswered questions about the case linger.

For now, there is still hope among Lacy's family and friends that the N.C. NAACP's efforts to apply moral pressure to law enforcement authorities will lead them to seek out and share more answers in the still-open case — and ultimately to prevent another suspicious death from haunting a family and a community.

"In 2014 we would hope, we would actually pray, that it was not a lynching," Barber said. "That is a strange prayer for us, to actually pray that it was a suicide."