There is no evidence that the death of Otis Byrd, a black man whose body was found hanging from a tree in Mississippi, was a homicide, federal officials announced Friday.
The investigation ended without charges, officials said. The death had raised fears of a racial lynching, once a common practice in the South.
“After a careful and thorough review, a team of experienced federal prosecutors and FBI agents determined that there was no evidence to prove that Byrd's death was a homicide,” the Justice Department announced. “Accordingly, the investigation into this incident has been closed.”
Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas, who is black, said that he agreed with the Justice Department decision, and that Byrd's death was an apparent suicide.
“At present there is no evidence a homicide was committed, and I'm OK with the findings,” Lucas said Friday. He expressed his condolences to the Byrd family.
The body of Byrd, 54, was found March 19 hanging from a locust tree near his home in Port Gibson. At a time when violence against African Americans — often at the hands of police — has become one of the nation's most incendiary issues, the incident attracted national attention and touched off fears of a possible hate crime.
Byrd's body was found with a bedsheet wrapped around the neck but no other visible signs of distress, according to Lucas — his hands and feet were not bound, his mouth was not gagged, there were no other outward signs of injuries.
Lucas said that no note was found on Byrd's body and that authorities had not heard of any threats against him.
Byrd was convicted in 1980 of killing a 55-year-old white convenience store clerk, Lucille Trim. He served his time and was released in 2006.
A riverboat employee, Byrd was last seen about March 2, when he and a family member visited a local casino. Lucas said Byrd returned home with someone else, whom the sheriff identified as a friend. Byrd usually checked in with his family daily, but after that day stopped calling. On March 8, the family filed a missing-person's report, and a search began the next day.
The Claiborne County Sheriff's Office and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks located the body in the woods near a road. The FBI led the investigation into a possible hate crime.