Mississippi Hanging A Suicide

The Justice Department's civil rights division concluded Thursday there was no criminal act in the hanging last summer of a black Mississippi teen-ager, which local authorities ruled a suicide.

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and the family of 17-year-old Raynard Johnson had argued that local authorities moved too quickly to rule out the possibility the youth was lynched by people who disapproved of his friendships with white girls in the rural community of Kokomo, Miss.

But a three-paragraph statement from the Justice Department said, "Despite the tragic nature of this event, the evidence about Mr. Johnson's death obtained and reviewed by the Department of Justice does not suggest that a criminal act occurred."

The department said it explored "every avenue of inquiry," including interviewing numerous witnesses and enlisting the aid of multiple forensic experts. It also reviewed "all available physical evidence" and findings of a medical examiner hired by the Johnson family.

"There are no other avenues left to consider," the department concluded. It noted that the Mississippi attorney general, the Mississippi Highway Patrol, the 15th Circuit Court district attorney and the Marion County sheriff reached the same conclusion after separate investigations.

The youth was found hanged last June 16 in the front yard of his Kokomo home.

Two autopsies, including the one commissioned by the family, found no evidence of a struggle. Authorities have said Johnson's girlfriend broke up with him shortly before he was found.

Marie Johnson said the Justice Department's decision was disappointing but she will not stop the fight to find her son's killer.

"We are going to continue to look with the help of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition because we know that the truth will come out," Johnson said in a phone interview.

Last August, Jackson said his investigators identified at least 15 people who could have had something to do with Johnson's death. He did not name them.

Lewis Myers, an attorney for Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, said four of the 15 people "within 90 days had a physical or verbal confrontation when the life of Raynard Johnson was threatened."
Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore said state and local investigators had tracked down every lead received from Johnson's family and Jackson's organization.

To some blacks, the Johnson case bore similarities to that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black who was abducted and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman.

Till's name is still cited through the South as an example of white hostility toward blacks. The last recorded lynching in Mississippi occurred 40 years ago when eight masked men dragged a black man from a county prison and hanged him just days before he was due to go on trial for raping a white woman.