ATLANTA - Attorney General Janet Reno and other top Justice Department officials assured the Rev. Jesse Jackson at a 90-minute meeting in Washington yesterday that the department was actively investigating the hanging of a black youth in his front yard in Kokomo, Miss., a month ago.
An autopsy concluded that the death of the youth, Raynard Johnson, 17, was suicide. But his family and Jackson say they are convinced he was lynched because of his relationships with white girls.
State, local and federal officials, under persistent pressure from Jackson, have been investigating the June 16 death despite the preliminary finding of suicide by a state medical examiner. The autopsy found no cuts, scratches, bruises, wounds or other signs that Johnson had either been hanged by assailants or killed first and strung up from the pecan tree.
J. Brad Pigott, the U.S. attorney in Jackson, Miss., said yesterday that investigators have interviewed more than 40 people. "We're determined to keep interviewing people in an attempt to get to the bottom of the true facts of the hanging," he said.
Pigott would not comment on the direction of the investigation. But Lisa S. Mader, the director of communications for Gov. Ronnie Musgrove of Mississippi, said yesterday that the state's public safety commissioner, David Huggins, had briefed the governor recently that "all indications are still pointing to a suicide."
In a brief statement, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder characterized yesterday's session with Jackson and Johnson's family as "an informative meeting about a very tragic incident."
He said he explained that the FBI and other agencies were "actively investigating" the death.
Jackson said it was "a step in the right direction" that the Justice Department "has kept an open mind regarding the cause of Raynard Johnson's death."
While Jackson and the Johnson family have raised questions about the hanging, they have yet to release any evidence that it was a homicide.
But that has not kept Jackson from describing the hanging as a lynching and from comparing it repeatedly to the murder of Emmett Till, a black teen-ager who was brutally killed in Mississippi in 1955, apparently after whistling at a white woman.
He has visited the scene of the hanging three times and met in Jackson with Musgrove and with black lawmakers. Last weekend, he led a two-day march in the area and brought along Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to help make his point.
Jackson and the Johnsons say they are convinced that Raynard did not commit suicide because he was a carefree, optimistic young man who did well in school, made friends easily, recently purchased a computer and was planning to attend college. Family members have said they do not believe that the brown, braided belt used in the hanging was his.