By Therese Apel
PORT GIBSON, Miss. (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department said on Friday it was closing its investigation into the death of a black man found hanging from a tree in Mississippi in March, after finding no evidence to prove it was a homicide.
Federal investigators joined the probe into the circumstances of Otis James Byrd's death after the 54-year-old man's body was found hanged by a bedsheet in a wooded area about half a mile (0.8 km) from his home in a rural part of western Mississippi more than two weeks after he had gone missing.
"We didn't find any evidence that there was a homicide," Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas told reporters. "We think that Mr. Byrd did this to himself."
He said investigators found no sign of a struggle, and there was no injury to Byrd's body beyond the cause of death, which was asphyxiation from the bedsheet.
The Mississippi chapter of the NAACP had called for a federal investigation into Byrd's death amid fears it may have been a racially motivated hate crime.
Some of Byrd's relatives, who met with federal and local officials for about an hour on Friday, remained unconvinced that he had killed himself.
“We believe that it was a homicide and we’re going to continue our investigation into it,” said family attorney Dennis Sweet.
The Justice Department said it would not pursue federal criminal civil rights charges.
"After a careful and thorough review, a team of experienced federal prosecutors and FBI agents determined that there was no evidence to prove that Byrd's death was a homicide," the department said in a statement.
Byrd's sister, Florene Hodge, said she resignedly accepted the decision.
"It may be suicide, we don't know. Only God knows," she said. "We're going to leave it at that and try to make a life for all of us."
(Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Will Dunham, Letitia Stein and Mohammad Zargham)