Jail Cell Hangings Revive Old Ghosts in Mississippi : Civil rights: Unanswered questions in 48 deaths since 1987 rekindle charges of racism and police misconduct.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even Dicky Sistrunk finds it peculiar, the way the lights went out almost as soon as Scott Campbell landed in jail. A whole side of this Mississippi town went black for more than an hour for reasons nobody could fathom. When the lights came back on, Campbell was dead.

Sistrunk, a police officer for only eight months, found the young black man strung up by his pants leg from a bar of his cell. When he untied the noose and lowered him to the floor with help from the jailer and a trusty, Sistrunk recalls, he saw a belt--later found to be 2 centimeters wide--lying across the dead man's shoulder.

No one can explain why it was in the cell because Campbell's friends and family insist that he habitually went without a belt. Nor can anyone explain why the 2-centimeter bruise around Campbell's neck matched the belt exactly.

All Campbell's parents knew, with a conviction that they say will never swerve, was that their son had been murdered.

"I'll go to my grave saying he didn't commit suicide," said his father, M. C. Campbell, a retired painter. He said he is convinced that his son was killed for dating white women.

Campbell's death in 1990 was one of the more troubling of 48 jail hangings, involving both blacks and whites, that have occurred in Mississippi since 1987. The deaths were officially ruled suicides, but unusual circumstances surrounding the deaths of several of the black inmates have revived the specter of the racially motivated lynchings of the state's past.

Even those who deny that there was wrongdoing in Campbell's death say they understand why people might want to believe the worst.

It was here in Neshoba County almost 30 years ago, after all, that the brutal slaying of three civil rights workers shocked the nation.

State murder charges were never filed, although seven people, including a deputy sheriff and an imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, eventually were convicted on federal civil rights charges and served brief prison terms. The memory of that crime still haunts many here.

One of the civil rights workers who was shot in 1964 and buried in an earthen dam was a 21-year-old black man named James E. Chaney. His brother, Ben, now heads a New York-based civil rights organization named for his sibling. He said he returned to Mississippi last year to personally investigate the Campbell case after hearing of the rash of jail hangings.

Although several rumors surrounding Campbell's death, including reports that he had been castrated and that his tongue had been cut out, were proved to be false, Chaney said: "I'm convinced without a doubt that he was murdered."

Many here say that today's Mississippi is nothing like the days of old, that all the talk of jailhouse lynchings is without foundation.

Police Chief James A. Gentry investigated Campbell's death in 1990 and, despite a number of unanswered questions, concluded that Campbell had hanged himself.

But much of the black community rejected that conclusion. People said they were concerned about the mysterious power failure, about the belt and about the disappearance of Campbell's clothes--and the belt--after the autopsy.

They said they were concerned that Campbell's remains were taken to a mortuary, washed and embalmed--all without the family's consent--before the body was examined, supposedly because of a lack of cooling facilities at the morgue.

Even then, they say, the mortuary used by the family found a bruise on Campbell's forehead and one on his chest--although police contend those probably occurred when he was chased and tackled by arresting officers.

However, perhaps the most compelling reason for people over a certain age not to accept the police chief's findings was simply this: They had lived through a time when a black man could be killed just for looking at or talking to a white woman.

They have not forgotten Emmett Till, the black teen-ager murdered in 1955 for whistling at a white woman.

"I talked to Scott," said his father, remembering the warnings he'd given his son. "I told him: 'Scott, you got to stop (dating white women). If you don't, it's going to get you in trouble. . . . They'll mess you up real bad."

But with a look of bemused patience, Gentry said those days are long gone.

"If every black guy that's been going with a white girl got killed, there wouldn't be many black guys left," the 55-year-old police chief said. Mississippians are "more rational" now about racial matters, he said.

The U.S. Justice Department is reviewing 47 of the hangings to determine whether to launch a full-scale criminal investigation into whether the victims' civil rights were violated. The 48th hanging occurred in Jackson a week ago, after the review had begun. A jail guard was indefinitely suspended for failing to adequately check the cell of the inmate, who officials said had shown suicidal tendencies. But members of the inmate's family told the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson that he said in a telephone conversation the night before he died that police had beaten him.

Gentry says he welcomes the Justice Department inquiry.

The chief speaks harshly of the community's racist past--a time when the KKK held sway and "a lot of people," justifiably, he said, "were afraid to stand up." But he added: "Anybody who doesn't think there's a tremendous difference in (today's) Neshoba County than in 1964, they were never here."

Still, some believe Campbell's death shows how little times have changed.

"Mississippi has for the past two generations, since the death of Emmett Till, escaped the censure of the rest of the country because of its ability to manipulate the press," said Charles Tisdale, publisher of the Jackson Advocate, a black newspaper that was the first to report on the jail hangings.

He contends that virulent racism in the state continues unabated and largely unreported.

Tisdale says he sees some of the alleged murders as "a warning to African-Americans. . . . It's letting people know that (white law officers) are still in control."

But for Sistrunk--who is 27 and has a stereotypical Southern lawman's way of referring to Campbell, three years his junior at death, as "that boy"--the biggest racial problem comes from black people "trying to live the past."

Interracial sex is still viewed as a "cardinal sin," he said, even though it is happening more and more as young people get to know each other in integrated schools. Dating a black guy might earn a white girl a beating from her father, he said, but in the new Mississippi, it's not something anyone would get killed over.

"My personal belief is if they want to mix up . . . that's their business," he said as he cruised the city's black section on a Sunday afternoon. "It doesn't mean I have to jump right in and do it the same. If you want to do it, it's your life."

Twenty-five of the 48 hanging victims were black. The nearly equal number of black and white victims might suggest that race is not a factor, except that in the national jail population, blacks account for only 16% of suicides while making up 41% of inmates, according to a 1988 study by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives.

Although Mississippi has more black inmates than white (2,433 to 1,006), the number of black suicides in the state's jails still appears to be high.

But some who are concerned about deaths in Mississippi jails do not see it solely as a race issue. Relatives of some of the white hanging victims also insist that they were murdered.

In one case that did not involve a hanging, Tom Tyler, a 28-year-old white man from the coastal town of Waveland, allegedly was strip-searched on a public road after he, his wife and friends were stopped for speeding last September.

Witnesses contend that because he talked back to the police, he was brutally beaten and cocaine was planted on him. He died later that night in jail, allegedly after more beatings.

An official autopsy found that he died of a heart attack. But when his family hired an independent pathologist to conduct a second autopsy, his heart was missing, said Andrea Gibbs, founder of Victims Voice, a Mississippi-based organization that aids victims of police brutality.

Officials explained that following the original autopsy, which had been contracted out to a pathologist in Louisiana, some of the body parts had been misplaced.

Two police officers have been indicted for manslaughter in the case.

The common denominator in the hanging deaths, said Joseph Lowery, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is that the victims tend to be poor and powerless.

No one appears to doubt that a share of the 48 jail hangings were actual suicides. That points up the need for major jail reform in a state notorious for poorly trained law enforcement personnel and badly supervised, aging jails, Lowery said.

But he also contends that in some cases there is strong evidence of murder. In no case is the evidence stronger than in Campbell's, he said.

*

David Scott Campbell was no angel. A high-school dropout and construction worker with an eye for the ladies, he'd been in trouble with the law several times.

On the night he died, Campbell had been out celebrating his 21st birthday. Driving the car of a white girlfriend who had come to visit him from a nearby town, Campbell had gone alone to the home of Barbara Boler, the mother of his child.

Trouble shadowed him. Two men with whom he had argued earlier showed up and began to bash out the car's taillights. They fled when police arrived. But because Sistrunk and Officer Greg Donald knew Campbell was wanted on a 2-year-old warrant for firing a gun at another man, they promptly forgot about the vandalism when they learned he was at the house.

Campbell was tackled in the back yard when he tried to flee. At the jail, Campbell, drunk and boisterous, was told he would have to wait until he cooled off before he could make a phone call, Sistrunk said.

It was a clear night. But as Sistrunk recalls it, a flash of what he calls "mysterious lightning" lit up a section of the sky shortly after he had deposited Campbell in jail and returned to his patrol.

A little later, just before midnight, Sistrunk noticed that much of the city had been plunged into darkness. He speculates now that the "lightning" might have been an electrical transformer malfunctioning, but power company officials later found no signs of malfunction and could not determine what caused the power failure.

Campbell's last previous arrest had been in the neighboring town of Union. His mother, Dorothy Campbell, went to see him in a hospital where he was taken because of injuries.

One of the two officers with him in the emergency room was Dwight Griffin, the father of a white woman Campbell had been seeing.

It was on this night that Campbell is said to have uttered the words that foretold what eventually would happen to him. But two versions of the prophecy exist. Dorothy Campbell maintains that her son told her he feared he would be killed in jail because of his involvement with Nikki Griffin.

For that reason, she said, her husband bailed him out quickly, and Scott Campbell never set foot in the Union jail.

Although he eventually died about 30 miles away in the Neshoba County Jail, his parents remain convinced that there was a law enforcement conspiracy to murder their son.

But several police officers in Union and Philadelphia--including Griffin and Sistrunk--insist that Luke McNair, the black arresting officer in Union that night, told them that Campbell had said something entirely different to him. McNair supposedly told these white officers that Campbell hated jail and vowed before he was released that he would kill himself the next time he got locked up.

Gentry said McNair's comments and similar statements by members of Campbell's family figured into his conclusion that Campbell committed suicide. But McNair later denied to a newspaper that he'd ever made the claim. He refused to comment for this story.

For his part, Griffin said he had heard rumors that his daughter had been seeing Campbell but did not learn it for a fact until after Campbell died. He first heard of the death, he said, when a woman angrily called him on the phone the next day, accusing him of murder. "I didn't know what she was talking about," he said.

Similarly, Sistrunk said that for months after the death, whenever he tried to make an arrest, people would accuse him of being the one who killed Campbell. "I didn't do it," he said. "Only one other person knows I didn't do it, and that's the good Lord above. I can sleep good at night."

Local civil rights leaders note that Griffin has a son who works for the power company. They say they believe that he might have been able to switch off the electricity to that part of town.

But Griffin angrily scoffs at such suggestions.

"We're talking about something that might've happened 40 years ago--not now," he said, insisting that he was nowhere near Philadelphia that night.

Of the police officers and Sheriff's Department personnel in Philadelphia, he said: "I know every one of them. . . . I have no doubt that nobody down there could've done anything like that. I don't know of a police officer like that."

Shortly after Campbell's death, the Neshoba County NAACP hired a private investigator to conduct an inquiry.

His 36-page report examines the death from a number of perspectives and concludes that although there was no sign of misconduct by any police officer, "my investigation did not convince me that Scott's death resulted from suicide."

The investigator said he had determined that Campbell had been alive when placed in the cell but, despite official denials that anyone could have gotten to Campbell without being seen, he noted that he was able to enter the jail through a side door and slip into the nearby cell without making any noise.

"I am not convinced Scott took his own life," he wrote, "especially when the disposition of his clothing is considered and the lifestyle Scott had been living is analyzed."

*

According to the 1988 U.S. Justice Department census of local jails, the South leads the nation in the number of jail suicides. Of the 284 suicides in the year ending June 30, 1988, 131 occurred in Southern states.

Conversely, the region lags behind others in average operating expenditure per inmate. Such spending ranged from $8,418 in the South to $17,710 in the Northeast. Mississippi had the lowest per-inmate outlay of any state: $5,341.

Gibbs says she knows firsthand how inmates are treated by Mississippi law officers.

A former sheriff's deputy in the coastal city of Gulfport, where she worked in a youth detention facility, she said she saw an inmate beaten on her first day on the job.

"I saw kids from 13 to 17 being beaten," said Gibbs, who is 27 and white. "There was systemic abuse and violence going on within the jail.

"I've never seen anybody hung, but I've certainly seen situations where it could've escalated into someone being murdered. . . . It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out that the best way to cover it up is to yell: 'Suicide!' and wrap a shoelace around their neck."

She and three other deputies were fired after they made their charges public in 1989. Officials denied the allegations, and a grand jury indicted two people--one of the four whistle-blowers and an officer who earlier had exposed problems with an inmate catering program.

"They squashed us like bugs," Gibbs said.

The issue of abuse and the jail hangings are not a racial issue, she asserted. "There're just as many white people who've been beaten."

"I believe in most cases we can prevent jail suicides," said Margaret Severson, a Louisiana State University professor who studied jails across the South. She was reluctant to say that Southern jails are worse than those in other parts of the nation, but she pointed out that they tend to be older, poorly lit, overcrowded and of antiquated design.

In addition, many jails in smaller communities do not have 24-hour staffs.

Although suicide rates in jails are nine times higher than in the general population, "experience has clearly demonstrated that almost all jail suicides can be averted with implementation of a prevention program," according to a 1988 report by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. "The key to prevention remains a capable and properly trained staff, the backbone ingredient to a facility."

Harrison was in Mississippi recently to report this story. Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to the story.

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