By Therese Apel
PORT GIBSON, Miss. (Reuters) - Authorities conducted an autopsy on Friday on a black man found hanging from a tree in Mississippi to help determine whether his death was a homicide or a suicide, as about 30 investigators searched the area for clues.
Otis Byrd, 54, who had been missing since March 2 when a friend dropped him off at the Riverwalk Casino in Vicksburg, was found in a wooded area about half a mile from his home in a rural part of western Mississippi on Thursday, authorities said. The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division are investigating the death with state and local officials.
Investigators were seeking out Byrd's friends and family and had searched the house where lived as well as a storage area he rented in an effort to piece together what led to his death, Jackson-based FBI Special Agent in Charge Don Alway told reporters.
"Everybody has heard rumors, including myself, as to who may be behind this and why," Alway said. "We're going to hold off on coming to any conclusions until really the facts take us to a definitive answer that we're all seeking."
Preliminary autopsy results, which are expected next week, will help guide the investigation, Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas said. He said Byrd's body had decomposed to the degree that dental records were used in identifying him.
Byrd was paroled in 2006 after spending more than 25 years in prison for murder, state records show.
The Mississippi chapter of the NAACP has called for a swift and thorough federal investigation into Byrd's death, saying its circumstances raised fears it may have been a racially motivated hate crime.
Those concerns were echoed by U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson, a Democrat representing the area.
"Given the history of the state, it is unavoidable that the hanging of a black man in Mississippi justifiably engenders deeply raw emotions," Thompson said.
Lora McDaniel, who attended church with Byrd, described him as reserved.
"He always had a smile on his face when he would speak to me," she said. "I just can't see him committing suicide."
Lynching, or extrajudicial public execution by hanging, was once a common practice in parts of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By one estimate, some 3,500 African-Americans and 1,300 whites were lynched from 1882 to 1968.
The incident comes seven months after a 17-year-old black male named Lennon Lacy was found hanging from a swing set in North Carolina in a case local authorities initially ruled a suicide but which the FBI announced in December it was considering suspicious and which it continues to investigate.
The FBI said Byrd's family filed a missing-persons report on March 8, with state authorities notified five days later.
Claiborne County, which has fewer than 10,000 residents, is about 85 percent black, according to U.S. Census data.
(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Fla., and Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Writing by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Sandra Maler and Bill Trott)