The mystery of a black teenager who was found hanging from a swing set in a small North Carolina town almost two years ago, prompting fears of a modern-day lynching, has achieved some kind of resolution after federal investigators announced they have closed their inquiry into the case having found no evidence of a hate crime.
Lennon Lacy, a 17-year-old budding African American high school football linebacker, died on the morning of 29 August 2014 just hours before a big game. He was found nearby his home in Bladenboro, North Carolina, hanging from a swing set in the middle of a trailer park occupied almost exclusively by white residents.
The Guardian brought the disturbing death to the public’s attention, reporting on the strong suspicions of Lennon’s family that he had been a victim of a hate killing. The FBI eventually agreed to investigate the case at the request of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP to see whether local police had made a mistake in categorizing the death as suicide.
The US attorney’s office for the eastern district of North Carolina has put out a statement stating that there was “no evidence to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges”. That finding was reached, the statement said, after a “comprehensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding Lacy’s death” had been conducted, specifically to see whether a homicide had taken place as a hate crime based on the victim’s actual or perceived race.
The US attorney listed the steps taken during the investigation, including a review of law enforcement reports, statements made by Lacy’s family and friends, witness statements, social media postings, forensic evidence and more. “After a careful and thorough review by a team of experienced federal prosecutors and FBI agents,” the office said, “the Justice Department found no evidence to suggest that Lacy’s death was a homicide. Accordingly, the investigation into this incident has been closed.”
It is not clear whether the categorical nature of the FBI and US attorney’s conclusion will finally assuage the searing doubts of Lacy’s family and bring them closure in the wake of the teenager’s tragic death. Lennon’s mother Claudia Lacy, and brothers Pierre and Larry, have been informed by the federal authorities of their decision, and so far have given no public response.
But the NAACP has indicated that the boy’s mother, as well as the civil rights organization itself, were at least satisfied that the FBI had carried out a proper review of the evidence. “Although the federal representatives were unable to answer all the family’s lingering questions about some evidence, Ms Lacy and NC NAACP lawyers were satisfied the federal authorities had tried to conduct a thorough investigation,” the NAACP said.
In its statement, the group added:“The NC NAACP and M Lacy have always said that we can take the truth and that it will set us free. [They] will take some time to process this news, before announcing their next steps in this case. There is no statute of limitations on a murder case.”
Despite the NAACP’s noncommittal response, there has been an outpouring of anger on social media from friends of the Lacy family and black activists denouncing the federal investigation as yet another cover-up. Pasha Lynn said on Facebook “It’s not over.” A postal worker named Corey Lyons said: “America’s laws were not meant for black people. I am appalled that federal officials have the audacity to close the case without giving the family the satisfaction of knowing the truth behind the murder.”
Durham resident HF Watts Jr wrote on the site that “this is disgraceful! No investigation was conducted. It was physically and mathematically impossible for suicide to happen with a 200 pound man and a short dog leash.”
The post was a reference to a report by an independent pathologist brought in by the North Carolina branch of the NAACP to review the case. The pathologist found discrepancies in the evidence that cast doubt on the official finding of suicide, and identified physical reasons that suggested it would have been almost impossible for the teenager to hang himself from the swing set.
Those conclusions conflicted with the earlier official autopsy report, which noted Lacy had been depressed from the recent death of a beloved uncle, and concluded the boy had died from “asphyxia secondary to hanging”.
Various other aspects of the case caused deep concern for family members, local residents of Bladenboro and the NAACP. A new pair of Jordans that Lacy had bought were missing, while a pair of white sneakers that nobody recognized was found on his body.
Lacy had also been in a relationship with an older white woman, Michelle Brimhall, who lived across the street. She told the Guardian that she was convinced he did not take his own life, though she added there had been no hostility towards them as a mixed-race couple.
Later, after she had left Bladenboro and moved elsewhere, Brimhall told the Daily Mail the opposite story – that she and Lacy had been targeted by white racists who told her they disapproved of interracial relationships.
The boy’s family were angry that the local police authorities had, in their opinion, already made up their minds that it was a suicide and rushed the investigation accordingly. But soon after the FBI closed the case, the Bladen County district attorney John David put out a statement disputing that account of events.
“Some have suggested that the quality of the initial law enforcement investigation was lackluster. In my analysis, this is simply untrue,” attorney Jon David said. “The FBI assessment has confirmed my initial opinion that the investigation conducted by the State Bureau of Investigation and the Bladenboro Police Department was complete, thorough, and professional.”
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