On the night of February 8, 2018, Willie Andrew Jones Jr. and Alexis Rankin had an argument in the car on the way to their parents’ home in Scott County, Mississippi

The couple had a difficult period in their relationship but they had a 3 month old child and 21 year old Jones wanted to reconcile.

They continued to fight when they arrived at 19-year-old Rankin’s house, where a group of her family members were staying. At one point, Jones went out and let Rankin in. Not long after, Rankin’s stepfather called 911 to say Jones was dead.

The black man was found hanging from a tree in the yard of his white friend’s house, 15 meters from the house and about 1.5 meters from the road.

The young man’s feet were on the ground and his knees were bent. His body sagged under the young pecan tree, a blue and white cloth belt wrapped around his neck. A yellow nylon cord attached to the buckle was tied around a branch of the tree.

Recommended

The sheriff’s department decided to hang a suicide; Jones’ family believe he was lynched. The case struck a nerve in a state whose past has been marked by frequent black lynching and at a time of national deliberation about how law enforcement works with African Americans and other minorities.

Jones’ family refuses to accept the sheriff’s decision and demands the retrial. After prosecutors initially refused to prosecute, the family filed an unlawful death lawsuit alleging that Rankin’s stepfather, Harold O’Bryant Jr., either killed Jones or did not prevent Jones from killing himself. O’Bryant never responded to the lawsuit, and in April a Jackson area judge awarded relatives close to $ 11.4 million.

According to a police report, O’Bryant told an officer that Jones said he would kill himself right before he left. O’Bryant said he then saw Jones walk across the front yard with rope in hand, but said he didn’t take the threat seriously.

Jones’ mother, Tammie Townsend, said her son never voiced her suicidal thoughts. She said he had a sports injury that prevented him from raising his arm above his head. Something she said would have made it physically impossible to hang yourself.

Jones’ family say O’Bryant was racially prejudiced against Jones and did not approve of his stepdaughter, who was with a black man. The lawsuit alleges that O’Bryant has shown erratic and violent behavior in the past and claims he has made threatening comments in the past on Jones as well as another friend of Rankin who is also black.

O’Bryant relentlessly denies the allegations.

“If they saw anything wrong, I would have been thrown in jail,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They’re trying to make it look like I’m a big headed white supremacist or something. I haven’t touched him. ”

O’Bryant said he never responded to the lawsuit or defended himself in court for never receiving a subpoena, despite court records showing the records were sent to him and also hand-handed to a family member living in his home. O’Bryant said the relative struggled with drug addiction at the time and never gave it to him.

He says he wants to appeal now but doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer.

O’Bryant worked as an auto mechanic and said he couldn’t raise $ 11 some days. “I sure don’t have $ 11 million,” he said.

At the same time, his family was forced to move away from home. He said that after Jones’ death, a passing rifleman sprayed his house with bullets while his grandchildren were inside.

But Jill Collen Jefferson, a civil rights attorney who represents the family, described the case as “a modern day lynching.”

Similar allegations have surfaced in other states. Just last week in Massachusetts, the family of a 16-year-old black girl who was found dead in a wooded area in April has denied a medical examiner’s finding that she was hanging from a tree.

And in the spring of 2020, family members and activists immediately called for further investigations after four blacks were found hanging from trees in California, New York and Texas within a month. The authorities ruled each case as suicide.

Civil rights activists have argued that blacks are less likely to die by hanging.

“Black men don’t hang themselves,” Jackson activist Nia Umoja told the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant in 2019 after Jones’ death. “We know our past.”

According to Jay Driskell, a consultative historian on the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University, there is understandable suspicion in the black community of law enforcement agencies within the black community as US officials have long used suicide rulings to cover up lynching.

“We rightly do not trust the official transcripts from … police, judges and investigators because they have proven to be so untrustworthy in the past,” said Driskell.

From the reconstruction to 1950, when the lynchings were highest, Mississippi had more than any other state, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. During that time, the state had 655 lynchings compared to 593 in Georgia and 549 in Louisiana.

Today, according to Sheriff Mike Lee, Scott County is a melting pot where people live and work together peacefully, largely because of the factories and mills in the area.

Lee, who is white, rejects the idea that Jones was lynched. He said he trusts the work of his investigators on the case, many of whom are black. He noted that his office was referring the case to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the FBI. A grand jury saw the evidence but did not believe there was any cause for prosecution.

“My department – no ifs or buts – if we felt that someone was being targeted for race, not only would we make this arrest, it would be very public,” he said.

One reason Lee said investigators found Jones’ death suicide is that O’Bryant himself came from a multiracial family. He had a black stepfather, has five biracial grandchildren and has lived in mostly black neighborhoods all his life.

But Jefferson, the Joneses’ attorney, noted that being close to blacks doesn’t preclude someone from being racist. In fact, this might be more of a reason for O’Bryant to fight, she said.

The lawsuit alleges, among other things, that O’Bryant once charged another black friend of Rankin with a broken bottle while he was using racist nicknames. O’Bryant denies this.

He admitted that at a young age in church he was told that interracial dating was wrong.

“I still feel like it’s not right, but hey, it is what it is. I’m not against it, “said O’Bryant. He added that he liked Jones, who was respectful and helped him with construction projects.

Rankin is now married to a black man. She said O’Bryant never tried to dissuade her from meeting anyone of any other race.

Townsend, Jones’ mother, described her son as a “country boy” who loved dogs, chickens, and most importantly his horse Fancy, which he rode every day. A talented sketch artist, he played for the high school soccer team and dreamed of being a supervisor of an oil pipeline.

He met Rankin in eighth grade and they started dating in 2017. Their baby was born later that year. Jones was often at the O’Bryant house, the family said.

Townsend said the night her son died, she received a call from the O’Bryants telling her Jones and Rankin had been fighting and asked her to pick him up. She said they didn’t say anything about him trying to harm himself. When she called back not long afterwards, someone on the other end of the line told her he had hanged himself.

“I knew there was no way he could do that,” she said.

When Townsend got home, the street was already taped off.

When she could finally see his body, she saw scratches and burns. Her son’s shoulder appeared to have slipped, which often happened when she was jostled, she said.

Investigators said the markings were from injections made when Jones’ body was embalmed. An autopsy showed no sign of bad play, they said.

The last three years have been long for Townsend after losing her eldest son.

“I could get all the money in the world, but making someone pay like I was in prison, locked up for killing my son, that’s what I want,” she said.

Scott County District Attorney Steven Kilgore said his office is open to prosecuting a criminal case if new evidence is presented but will not bring a case to a grand jury on the same evidence.

“If we had a reason to reopen it, we would do it without hesitation,” he said. “So far we have no reason to do that.”

___

Leah Willingham is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national service program that lets journalists report undercover issues to local newsrooms.