Will results of hanging probe be accepted?
By Ronnie Agnew
It's an e-mail certain to breach the peace of a quiet Sunday afternoon. "Black man found dead, hanging from the porch of his white girlfriend in Mississippi."
The e-mail writer said no press had picked up the story, although the alleged hanging had occurred days earlier, on Jan. 2.
It's not surprising that there had been no press in the death of 25-year-old Sidney Robinson. Police said the Newton County man had committed suicide, which is rarely reported in any media form.
We don't report suicide because it serves no public purpose, exposing the mental vulnerability of a person who has lost the will to live. Only when they occur in public, or involve a public figure, does a sad incident like a suicide make its way into print.
Last Sunday when I received the e-mail, that was the way this case was going to stay, private, only for authorities and family members to share if they chose. That decision was based on what we learned from police.
WE LIVE IN MISSISSIPPI
There was no mention of race being a factor in Robinson's death, only that he was found hanged in the carport of the home of friends.
The Newton police chief said no crime was committed, a statement he knew those grieving his death were likely to challenge. "Sometimes this is hard for folks to accept," Chief Harvey Curry told a Clarion-Ledger reporter. "The pathologists have indicated it was a suicide."
We do live in Mississippi, after all, a state that's in continual defense mode over its segregationist past.
That very fact makes a tragic incident, such as a hanging, fair game for open questioning for some who don't believe a person would take his own life, particularly with a rope around his neck.
Many questions do remain about why a young man such as Robinson would die like this. But until more time is spent investigating the matter, which it should be, it seems even more tragic that the terms of Robinson's life will be open for public inspection - or worse, protests.
What if he did commit suicide? What if he was troubled and people around him didn't pick up warning signals?
Those are legitimate possibilities as the investigation into Robinson's death goes forth. After public outcry last week and because we do live in Mississippi, the state Bureau of Investigation announced it was launching a probe.
William Jenkins, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Mississippi, said the probe was being conducted because of the "history of lynchings that have occurred over the last hundred years concerning African Americans."
The investigation is consistent with other hanging incidents in recent years in Mississippi. In 2003, the family of a Kemper County man found hanging from a tree called for an investigation into his death. An autopsy found that the man, who was black, had committed suicide.
The case of Raynard Johnson is arguably the most high-profile hanging incident in Mississippi in the past decade. Raynard, a 17-year-old black kid from Kokomo, was found hanged in 2000.
His death prompted protests, visits to Mississippi by Rev. Jesse Jackson and terrible national press for the state. When it all subsided, an outside autopsy conducted by an out-of-state pathologist concluded that the teen's death was consistent with suicide.
It's much too early to tell if the Robinson case will gain national attention. It's my hope that the case is thoroughly investigated.
But if that truth confirms what has already been determined - as has happened with the other cases - I hope the results will be accepted and the healing process begins.
That's best for the Robinson family and for Mississippi.