Lead Story National & World News

Black man found hanging from tree in Mississippi

PORT GIBSON, Mississippi — An African-American man is found hanging from a tree in the Mississippi woods, his body 15 feet above the ground. There’s no chair in sight. His hands are not bound.

Is this a suicide? Or is it a lynching — a shadow from the South’s history of racial violence re-emerging?

Those were the big questions Friday, a day after authorities found the body of a man with bedsheets around his neck in Port Gibson, a small town of just over 1,500 people in rural Clairborne County, about 60 miles southwest of Jackson, the state capital.

An autopsy to determine the man’s identity could come back later Friday or, at the latest, on Monday. Regardless, authorities have a lot of work ahead to figure how the man died, and who is responsible.

“It could take a week, it could take two weeks, it could take months,” Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas told CNN.

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jason Pack has declined to say who authorities believe the man is. However, Sheriff Lucas said staffers from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks who came across the body are searching — at Lucas’ request — for 54-year-old Otis Byrd.

A law enforcement official said the man is believed to be Byrd. That is what the Claiborne County chapter of the NAACP and Byrd’s family members think, even as Lucas told CNN affiliate WAPT that no relatives were allowed to see the body because “it is a crime scene.”

The body was found at 10:21 a.m. Thursday, deep in a forest about 500 yards from the house Byrd was renting, according to Lucas. A skull cap had been pulled over the man’s head, the sheriff said.

That house was the last place where Byrd had been seen on March 2, according to the sheriff. He was reported missing a week later, spurring a search.

Still, Thursday was the first time that authorities looked specifically in the wooded area where the body was found, according to the sheriff.

A family member who did not want to be identified said Byrd was not acting out of the ordinary in the days before he went missing.

He went to church, he worked and occasionally ventured to a casino, according to the family member, who described Byrd as a “good, hard-working man.”

Byrd had been in prison. He was convicted in 1980 of murdering a woman, but was paroled in 2006, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

No one has given any indication publicly whether Byrd had enemies.

Mississippi NAACP chapter President Derrick Johnson issued a statement calling on :federal authorities to immediately investigate the hanging death of Mr. Otis Byrd.”

The FBI, in fact, already is looking into any federal civil rights violations and has a forensics team on the scene. The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi are also investigating, according to a spokeswoman for the Justice Department.

The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation also is investigating.

Pack, the FBI’s supervising agent, told WAPT that “it’s too early to say what happened or speculate about the cause or the manner of [the man’s] death.”

“We don’t know what happened out there,” he said. “We don’t know if it was a suicide, if it was a homicide. That’s why we investigate these types of cases.”

CNN’s Ed Lavandera and Jason Morris reported from Mississippi, and CNN’s Greg Botelho wrote this story from Atlanta. CNN’s Evan Perez, Alexandra Jaffe and Wesley Bruer contributed to this report.