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Black florida man hanging { August 29 2003 }

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Civil Rights Commission Refers Hanging Case to Justice Department
By By Jill Barton Associated Press Writer
August 29, 2003

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced Thursday it would ask the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the hanging of a black man because of rumors that he was murdered by law enforcement officials.

The commission criticized police for treating the death of Feraris "Ray" Golden as a suicide from the beginning, rather than investigating "foul play," according to a letter sent by commission director Les Jin to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The letter also pointed to rumors of "knots" on Golden's head and raised questions about whether he could successfully climb a tree on a rainy night, since he had a blood alcohol level more than four times the legal limit for driving.

"Substantial suspicion remains in significant portions of the Belle Glade community that Mr. Golden died because of foul play, and some suspect that one or more members of the Belle Glade law enforcement community may have been involved," the letter said.

Calls to Justice's public affairs office in Washington went unanswered late Thursday. But Belle Glade Police Chief Michael Miller said he welcomed further investigations and pledged cooperation.

"I believe the Belle Glade Police Department did a credible investigation," he said. "If facts are discovered that we're not aware of, we will certainly be 100 percent cooperative - because after all, we're all in search of the truth."

Suspicions arose immediately after Golden was found hanging in a tree in his grandmother's yard at dawn on May 28. Some in his hometown of Belle Glade, a rural, poor farming community about 45 miles outside of West Palm Beach, said his hands were tied behind his back. Others said he was killed because he was dating the daughter of a white police officer and that authorities covered up the murder.

The rumors persist despite a public inquest last month where a judge concluded that the evidence pointed only to suicide. Autopsy photos showed a single bruise around Golden's neck, and video from a police car arriving to the scene showed Golden's stiffened arms at his sides.

Testimony showed Golden to be a troubled, divorced, unemployed father of four, who was behind in his child-support payments and frequently joked - in his characteristic jovial way - that he would kill himself. Relatives also said the bedsheet used as a noose came from Golden's home - prompting even Golden's stepfather to admit that suicide seemed "possible."

But Jin wrote that Golden's family remains dissatisfied with previous investigations.

Jin also wrote that family members were not called to testify at the inquest - although Circuit Judge Harold Cohen publicly asked family and community members to speak out during the inquest if they had any evidence to support any conclusion other than suicide.

Sevell Brown III, the Florida president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which has been calling for additional investigations, said family and friends felt intimidated by police.

"People in Belle Glade have been placed in a zone of uncomfort," said Brown, whose agency was founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "Because it is being made plain and clear that you are not to step up to the plate and give information that basically would compromise the decisions of law enforcement."

Brown faulted police for ignoring rumors about Golden's possible relationship with a white policeman's daughter. During the inquest, police officials said they did not investigate the possibility because it was rumor.

Brown said Golden's family, whose phone went unanswered Thursday, remains convinced that all the facts about Golden's death have not been uncovered.

The Civil Rights commission, which investigates allegations of discrimination in the justice system but has no enforcement powers, finished a preliminary review of the case last week.

"The need to conduct a full independent criminal investigation of this matter must be considered in light of historical circumstances, and the reality that in the course of American history many young black men have been lynched on the fact or even mere speculation that they were having a relationship with a white woman," Jin wrote.

A lynching hasn't been documented for more than two decades and the crime reached its peak more than a century ago, when there were more than 100 a year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. But from 1935 to the 1960s, the average fell to a few a year.

Civil rights observers say the accusations that Golden was murdered - or even worse, lynched by a mob - naturally arise in southern towns like Belle Glade, where blacks have distrusted police for generations. Three years ago, civil rights leaders and the family of a black teenager called for investigations into the boy's hanging in Kokomo, Miss. Investigators ultimately ruled out foul play.

Jin noted that, at the least, an investigation by Justice Department officials would "allay some of the concerns" in the Belle Glade community.

Black florida man hanging { August 29 2003 }
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