The FBI is investigating the death of a 54-year-old Mississippi man found hanging less than a half-mile from his home in rural Claiborne County.
Otis Byrd was last seen on March 2, being dropped off by a friend near a casino in Vicksburg. He was reported missing by his family on March 8, and the sheriff’s office reported Byrd missing to the Mississippi FBI office on March 13th.“At this point we are trying to determine what happened,” Attorney General Eric Holder told msnbc’s Trymaine Lee in an exclusive interview Friday. “The FBI, the civil rights division, the U.S. Attorney for the southern district of Mississippi are looking into the matter to determine if there are any federal violations of law that occurred. If it’s a potential hate crime – we simply don’t know enough facts, we’re still in the process of trying to gather those facts – but we do have a substantial federal presence to determine what the facts are.”
Jason Pack, a special agent with the FBI office in Jackson, Mississippi, said in a statement emailed to msnbc Thursday that Byrd’s body was found “hanging in the woods near Roddy Road a half mile from his last known residence” after members of the Claiborne County Sheriffs Department and the Mississippi Wildlife Fisheries and Parks “conducted a ground search.”
“The sheriff’s department contacted the [Mississippi Bureau of Investigations] and FBI for forensic and investigative assistance,” Pack’s emailed statement said.
There have been eight or nine hangings that have all been ruled suicides in the last 15 years, according to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization. He said it is too soon to jump to any conclusions.
Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi state branch of the NAACP, told msnbc the investigation into Byrd’s death is “very preliminary.”
“We’ve been in touch with the FBI, who’ve just finished meeting with the family,” he said Thursday evening.
Johnson confirmed that Byrd had been “formerly incarcerated for a murder” for which he was convicted in 1980. He said Byrd was “convicted of killing a white woman in the same county.” But he declined to speculate on whether Byrd’s past had any connection to his death, and said it was unknown whether he had faced any threats prior to his disappearance. Johnson said Byrd was released from prison “less than a year ago.”
Byrd’s residence just outside of Claiborne County was in an extremely rural area, for which the closest town is Port Gibson, about 45 miles from Jackson and 20 miles from Vicksburg.
Claiborne County “has the highest percentage of African-Americans in the state,” Johnson said.
The Justice Department’s civil rights division is also investigating Bird’s death, a Justice Department official told msnbc.
Johnson said the NAACP is awaiting word from investigators and is drawing no conclusions about whether Byrd’s death was a suicide or a homicide. He noted that the sheriff of Claiborne County is the immediate past president of the local NAACP branch, and that the organization feels confident in “withholding judgment” and allowing the investigation to proceed.