Search for missing black man leads to body hanging in Mississippi woods

The NAACP called on the Justice Department to investigate after the body of a man missing for more than two weeks was likely found hanging by a bed sheet in the Mississippi woods Thursday morning.

Sheriff's deputies and agents of the Mississippi Wildlife Fisheries and Parks Department discovered the body in Claiborne County, near the Louisiana border about 50 miles southeast of Jackson, as they were searching for a missing person, said the FBI, which was called in to assist in the investigation.

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Jason Pack, special agent in charge of the FBI's Jackson bureau, didn't identify the man or specify the cause of death. But the bureau noted in a statement that the body was found just a half mile from the residence of a man who has been missing since March 2.

Otis James Byrd, 54, who is African-American, was last seen March 2 and was reported missing in Claiborne County six days later.

Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas wouldn't confirm any identification, telling reporters that it remained undetermined whether the death was a homicide or a suicide.

The man "had a bed sheet tied around his neck," Lucas said in response to questions as he stood outside the crime scene Thursday afternoon. He said the victim had some sort of cap on his head.

The Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP sent an email asking the Justice Department to "join the current investigation of the suspicious hanging death of Mr. Otis Byrd."

"The nature in which Mr. Byrd's body was found required us to contact federal authorities and request a thorough investigation to ensure this was not a racial hate crime," said Derrick Johnson, the conference's president. "It's too early in the process to speculate, but based on the history in Mississippi of racial hate crimes, we are always concerned when an African-American is found hung in a tree in this state."

It wasn't immediately clear how the NAACP had concluded that the dead man was Byrd.

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