North Carolina teen's hanging ruled a suicide, but was it a lynching?

A North Carolina teen's death is ruled a suicide, but the family and NAACP say investigators were too hasty

A young black man is dead. The police are roundly criticized. Angry protesters march through the streets.

But unlike the deaths of black men in New York and Ferguson, Mo., the death of 17-year-old Lennon Lacy in this tiny lumber town was not known to be at the hands of a white cop — or any cop. After Lacy was discovered hanging from a trailer park swing set Aug. 29, authorities quickly ruled his death a suicide.

His mother and brother refused to believe it. They alleged that the investigation was hasty, incomplete and riddled with contradictions. They took their complaints to the state chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

After weeks of pressure from the NAACP and the family, the U.S. attorney for eastern North Carolina announced Friday that the FBI had opened an investigation into the case.

The narrow streets of Bladenboro, population 1,700, were jammed Saturday with a few hundred protesters of all races, chanting and hoisting placards. Organized by the NAACP, the marchers — led by Lacy's mother and brother — cheered the FBI inquiry and demanded a full accounting of how the teenager's death was investigated.

"There were a lot of things the investigators said that just didn't add up," Claudia Lacy said, wearing a "No Justice, No Peace" T-shirt emblazoned with photos of her son.

"Why wasn't this investigation taken seriously?" she asked. "I want answers."

Sneakers on her son's feet were a size and a half too small and did not belong to him, Lacy said. The two canvas belts around his neck were not his. His hands were not bagged to preserve possible evidence, she said, and police were already breaking down the scene when she arrived to identify her son's body.

Investigators did not search the family home, she said. No suicide note was found. And Lacy said investigators seized on a comment she made about her son being upset by the death of a beloved uncle to make a case that he was depressed and suicidal.

Asked whether she suspected someone had killed her son, Lacy replied: "No, I can't say that. I don't know what happened. That's why we need a new investigation."

Walking hand-in-hand with Lacy was the Rev. William J. Barber II, the NAACP state president, who has alleged for weeks that the investigation was slipshod and perfunctory because Lacy was black.

During Saturday's protest, Barber acknowledged that Lacy may have committed suicide, but he also raised the possibility that he was lynched.

"The question is: Was it self-inflicted? Was it a staged hanging? Or was it a lynching homicide?" Barber said.

"If Lennon Lacy had been white, would there have been such a rush to judgment?"

Bladen County Dist. Atty. Jon David defended the investigation as "professional, thorough and extensive," complete with photographs, measurements and interviews. He said he asked the FBI last month to review the case because the Lacy family and the NAACP told him they would provide information only to federal authorities.

"We need to make sure a comprehensive and professional investigation is done," David told reporters Friday. "We recognize the importance of the case to the community."

For nearly three hours Saturday, protesters chanted slogans and peacefully marched the length of the town, observed by sheriff's deputies and state troopers. The demonstration came the same day marchers in Washington, D.C., New York and other cities protested the deaths of black people at the hands of white police in Ferguson, Mo., New York and Cleveland.

But in Bladenboro, the focus was not on a confrontation between a black male and a white policeman. It was on black perceptions of the criminal justice system in a small Southern town where the tiny police force has never had a black member, according to a local pastor, the Rev. Gregory D. Taylor, and where the first black county sheriff, Prentis Benston, lost his reelection bid in November.

Suicides can be notoriously difficult to prove conclusively, and family members often fail to detect signs of distress in loved ones who later kill themselves. But even if Lacy's death is ultimately determined to be a suicide, Barber said, the investigation demands further scrutiny.

The Lacy family "can accept anything if it's proven and it's true, but they cannot accept this rush to judgment," Barber said.

Lennon Lacy's brother, Pierre, 31, said investigators told him they considered the case a suicide because there was no other explanation for the hanging.

"They ruled it a suicide almost right away and didn't follow up with anything," Pierre Lacy said. "When I questioned them, they got upset."

The night before his body was found, his mother said, Lennon Lacy was looking forward to playing in the first football game of the season the next day. He washed his uniform and hung it to dry, then went for his usual jog and exercise workout that evening, she said.

It was the last time she saw him alive. Lacy's body was found at 7:25 a.m. Aug. 29, suspended from the swing set in what Barber called "a predominantly white trailer park known for drug activity."

"He wasn't depressed. He wasn't suicidal," Claudia Lacy, 51, said. "I know. I'm his mother."

A family lawyer, Allen W. Rogers, said he was unable to persuade local authorities to consider any possibility other than suicide.

"They had their minds made up, and they just needed to convince the family it was a suicide," Rogers said at the march. "They didn't expect this kind of scrutiny."

A private pathologist hired by the NAACP, Dr. Christena L. Roberts, criticized the way the body was handled at the death scene and the way evidence was collected. In a report, Roberts said she was told by a state medical examiner who conducted an autopsy that the suicide conclusion was based on information provided by investigators at the scene.

The local coroner reported that there were white sneakers on Lacy's body when he placed it in a body bag, Roberts said in the report. When the body arrived at the state medical examiner's office, she said, it bore gray sneakers that were a size and a half too small.

Roberts said she agreed with the medical examiner's conclusion that Lacy's head bore no visible wounds. She also agreed that abrasions on Lacy's face and arms, cited by his family, were ant bites.

In Bladenboro on Saturday, some whites joined in the march and others watched respectfully from sidewalks and storefronts as protesters chanted, "We won't stop marching till we get the truth!"

Taylor, the Lacy family pastor, said of Bladenboro: "There's a history of racism here, but relations have improved."

Travis Smith, 25, a white construction worker who played high school football here, said Lacy's death should be thoroughly investigated because his family deserved answers. He said there are few racial tensions in the town, where about 17% of residents are black.

"It's not like there's a race war going on here," Smith said as he watched from a car wash. "But this whole case opens up the door to play the race card, unfortunately."

Claudia Lacy, drawn and worn after walking the streets Saturday, said she didn't want her son's death subsumed by the issue of race. She said deaths of blacks and whites should be investigated exactly the same way.

Asked whether her son's investigation would have been handled differently had he been white, she replied, "Yes. Oh, yes."

Twitter: @davidzucchino

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