Byrd family calls for new investigation
Published 9:48 am Thursday, April 9, 2015
The family of Otis James Byrd, a Port Gibson man whose body was found hanged from a tree behind his home in March, is seeking an independent investigation into the 54-year-old’s death.
Attorney Dennis Sweet III said the Byrd’s family has not been given adequate and they wanted an additional investigation.
“We’ve already contacted some experts and already retained pathologist Michael Baden. The body was cremated, but he still can review evidence and give second opinions,” he said. “We plan on filing a legal action soon which would give us some authority to the courts and subpoena power to do an investigation.”
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Attorney Denis Sweet IV said the family had not filed any legal suit but “do plan to take action.” He would not elaborate on potential action.
“They are grieving the loss of Otis Byrd, but they wish to retain their privacy,” he said.
FBI officials told The Vicksburg Post they were not aware of the press conference or any information the family planned to share. FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jason Pack said the investigation into Byrd’s death is ongoing.
“The investigation is not over. It is accurate to say that we’ve briefed the family all along. That is just an example of how we’re staying in touch with them throughout the investigation,” he said.
FBI Special Agent Donald Alway confirmed Pack’s insistence that the Byrd family has been kept apprised of the investigation.
“At each milestone in this case, the FBI’s first step is to personally brief family members. Though we haven’t publicly released autopsy results, on March 24, along with the MBI, investigators met with family representatives to discuss the state medical examiner’s findings and answer any questions,” Alway said. “As we have since the outset, our team will continue to do so with any new development.”
Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas said authorities met with the family on March 21 and 24 and provided them information in the case.
“If the family wants to tell Mr. Sweet what we told them, that’s fine with me,” he said. “If they find someone who they think is better than the FBI, that’s fine, but they’re the best. No one is as good as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Lucas added he would make his records on the case available to the family’s attorneys.
“All of our records are public,” he said. “We have nothing to hide. If they hire somebody who gets more information, I’ll call them. I want the same thing they do. I want closure.”
Baden is the former Chief Medical Examiner of New York City and former chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police. He has investigated more than 3,000 homicides, suicides and drug-related deaths.
In 2000, Baden was brought to Mississippi by state authorities to help investigate after a black teenager was found hanging by a tree in another south Mississippi community, Kokomo. Baden said that death, in his opinion, was self-inflicted and not a lynching.
Pack said the FBI investigation is complex.
“I think it’s also important to know that the autopsy is only one piece of information. That’s why we’re waiting on these other test results to have the whole picture,” Pack said. “I can’t get into specifics, but it’s items they recovered in the investigation, just to see what they say.”
The family has some concerns with initial reports pointing to suicide, Dennis Sweet IV said. The FBI has made no official statement on the Byrd’s cause of death.
“FBI agents working the case await results of additional forensic testing by the FBI Laboratory. We’ll combine those results with many other facts we’ve gathered, to give the results context. Early in the investigation, we were more visible in the Port Gibson community. We’re taking the information and things we’ve learned from both the scene and the community and comparing that to the evidence,” Alway said. “These parts of an investigation are not as visible. We are still working diligently. Unlike forensic testing in television crime dramas, real testing requires time to complete.
Certainly we’ve heard that people want answers now, and we clearly sympathize, but we’re charged with getting this right and we intend to do so.”
Sweet IV said the law firm is prepared to take any and all legal action necessary to ensure a thorough investigation.
“There is a long history of lynching in the state of Mississippi, there’s a long history of lynching of black men and this has brought national attention to this case. However, Otis Byrd was found dead three weeks ago and the family still has limited information, Dennis Sweet IV said. “The family wants answers. We cannot allow the death of a man hanging from a tree to be swept under the rug. We ask that all authorities and public officials be open, transparent with the family, and fair in their investigation.
Several Port Gibson residents agreed the Byrd family was right to hire a lawyer, but were reluctant to give an opinion in the cause of Byrd’s death.
“The debate (about Byrd’s death) is still going on,” Lee Howard said. “But I don’t have enough of the facts or the evidence to say one way or the other. They were right to hire an attorney because they need closure.”
“I don’t know enough to say one way or the other, but when you look at the case, you have to wonder,” Eric Smith said.
Michael Robinson said the Byrds family’s decision to hire a lawyer was the correct decision, “because they need to know he died, whether it was suicide or murder. They deserve to know. I think it’s a good idea.
“No man deserves to die like that, whether it’s a black man, a white man or any man of any race,” he said. “That’s not a good way for someone to die.”
Robinson said he was out-of-town when Byrd’s body was discovered, and had no opinion on his death, but said, “There are a lot of questions, and they need to be answered.”