More than three months after local authorities ruled that a black teenager had committed suicide after he was found hanging from a swing set in a small North Carolina town, the FBI has opened an investigation into the death.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Raleigh said Friday the FBI and Justice Department review of the local investigation in Bladenboro was prompted by requests from the teenager’s family and the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP.
“There are too many questions and contradictions ... about the facts, quick conclusions and how the death scene was not protected to leave this case unprobed and unevaluated,” Dr. William J. Barber II, the NAACP chapter president, said in statement Friday.
Lennon Lacy, 17, a 207-pound high school football player, was found suspended from the swing set in a trailer park Aug. 29. A state medical examiner and a county coroner ruled his death a suicide.
Lacy’s family questioned local authorities’ handling of the case and contacted the state National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, which requested the federal investigation. The family has said that neither a belt used in the hanging nor shoes found on the body belonged to Lacy.
A private pathologist hired by the NAACP, Dr. Christena L. Roberts, criticized the way the body was handled at the death scene. In a report, Roberts said she was told by a state medical examiner that the suicide conclusion was based on information provided by investigators at the scene.
Roberts said the examiner, Dr. Deborah Radisch, told her she would consider revising the manner of death as “undetermined” if provided by investigators with convincing new evidence. Radisch, who conducted the Lacy autopsy, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Jon David, the Bladen County district attorney, said Friday he asked the FBI to review the case shortly before Thanksgiving because the NAACP and the Lacy family told him they would provide information only to federal authorities. David asked anyone with information on the case to contact authorities.
“Not only is the case open, but our minds are open,” David told reporters. “Together we are going to seek justice.”
David said the local investigation was “professional, thorough and extensive.” Investigators took photographs and measurements, made diagrams and interviewed witnesses, he said.
The family has questioned whether investigators took photos and whether those photos were provided to the medical examiner. David said he could not discuss details of the case.
Barber of the NAACP said that it’s possible the teenager committed suicide and that his family is prepared to accept the truth. But he said the family is not prepared to accept what Barber described as a hurried and incomplete investigation.
At a church meeting in Bladenboro on Dec. 1, Barber asked the gathering: “If a white man’s body was found hanging in a black neighborhood, would there have been a rush to judgment?” Barber has said Lacy’s body was found in a predominantly white area of Bladenboro, in southeastern North Carolina, about 100 miles from Raleigh.
Though Barber has raised the possibility that Lacy was lynched, he told the church gathering that the young man’s death was “not a race issue [but] a death issue,” the Robesonian newspaper reported.
On Friday, Barber called the FBI investigation “a great step forward toward justice” and “part of an effort to crack the small-town code” that he alleged had covered up errors in handling the death scene.