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FBI Awaits Autopsy In Hanging Of Black Man In Mississippi

03/20/2015 02:41 pm ET | Updated Mar 20, 2015
Mississippi Dept of Corrections

PORT GIBSON, Miss. (AP) -- A Mississippi sheriff said Friday that a black man found hanging from a tree did not appear to have stepped off of anything before he died.

Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas Sr. told The Associated Press on Friday that the body was found Thursday hanging by a bed sheet from a tree limb about 12 feet high, and that his feet were dangling about two feet off the ground. The hands on the body were not bound, he said.

The results of an autopsy by the Mississippi Crime Lab to determine whether the death was homicide or suicide could take days, Lucas said.

The hanging is being investigated by the FBI, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney's office as well as the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.

The feds are there to determine if it's a potential hate crime or other violation of federal law, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday.

"We simply don't know enough facts," Holder told MSNBC. "We do have a substantial federal presence to determine what the facts are."

The man's identity has not been confirmed, but Lucas believes the dead man is Otis Byrd, a 54-year-old ex-convict who lived just about 200 yards from the tree and had been declared missing by his family about two weeks ago.

Lucas has known Byrd, who had to check in with the sheriff's department as a condition of his parole in 2006 after serving 26 years in prison for the murder of a woman during a robbery in 1980.

Vicksburg Police Chief Walter Armstrong said Friday that after local authorities asked his department to check on a report that Byrd had been at a casino, video surveillance was recovered showing Byrd at the Riverwalk Casino on March 2.

"We didn't see anything of significance on the tape. He was just walking around the casino. We did not see him after that," Armstrong said.

The body was found by state wildlife officers and had "obvious signs" of decomposition, suggesting that it had been hanging in the woods for some time, said Jim Walker, a , a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

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