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Burden of Proof

Mississippi Hanging Investigation: Suicide or Lynching?

Aired July 17, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET


ROGER COSSACK, CNN ANCHOR: A black teenager is found hanging from a tree in Mississippi. Was it suicide? or a lynching? That's today on BURDEN OF PROOF.


MARIA JOHNSON, MOTHER: I know there's no way, no way Raynard would do that.

ROGER JOHNSON, BROTHER: Raynard had no reason to commit suicide. He showed no reason.

BRAD PIGOTT, U.S. ATTORNEY: We are not about to give up in getting to the bottom of the full truth of everything that might relate to the young man's death.

BUDDY MCDONALD, DISTRICT ATTORNEY: We're encouraging people to contact the FBI and state and local law enforcement if they have any information, or believe they have any information, either way.


ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Greta is off today.

The family of Raynard Johnson says the 17-year-old honor student was athletic and popular. So, when they found him hanging from a tree outside his Mississippi home, they immediately ruled out suicide. They say circumstantial evidence indicates that Johnson was lynched and have called on federal authorities to investigate. Local law authorities and the medical examiner who performed the autopsy say the evidence points to suicide.

Joining us from Houston is the Johnson family attorney, Lewis Myers, and from Detroit, we're joined by medical examiner Dr. Werner Spitz. And here in Washington, John Cox (Ph), former FBI agent Clint Van Zandt and Christine Chalfant (ph). And in the back, Angela Gray (ph) and Sarah Mareno (Ph).

Let's go right to Lewis Myers. Lewis, you represent the family. I'm going to ask you to take us back to the night that this young man was found hanging. And describe the murder scene, and particularly describe the tree, and were there marks on the trees or things that would indicate that there was a struggle?

LEWIS MYERS, GENERAL COUNSEL, RAINBOW/PUSH COALITION: Actually, Roger, I represent the National Rainbow/PUSH Collision, which is the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Alvin Chambliss is the lawyer who represents the family, but I know the facts of the case because we have been working very closely...

COSSACK: All right, thanks for straightening me on that one, OK, thank you, Lewis.

MYERS: ... down in Mississippi with in fact the family.

But let me say this, I have examined that. On or about June 16th, this young man was found hanging in his front yard. They have ruled it a suicide. All of the evidence points to a homicide. This young man was not depressed. He had no prior mental problems. He was an "A" student in school. In fact, he had made plans to go to one of the state universities.

In fact, there were people who had seen him less than an hour and a half prior to this alleged, quote, unquote, "suicide," who said that he was upbeat, that he was smiling, that he was talking, did not appear to be depressed. In fact, one young lady talked to him what we now believe it could have been less than 35 to 40 minutes prior to the incident, and there was absolutely no indication that he would have done such a dastardly thing.

COSSACK: All right, Lewis, let's -- That's why I want to ask you about the murder scene. I understand everything you have said, in terms of what his outlook is, and certainly his family believes that he had no reason to do it, and that clearly is an issue in this case. But when someone hangs themself, there has to be -- or else is in a struggle, there usually would be some physical evidence.

So let's go over this, The autopsy indicates there were no broker bones, there were no bruises, there was no flesh under his fingernails, there no tears of the skin that would indicate that he was in a struggle. How do you answer that?

MYERS: Well, what the autopsy, in fact, does now reveal, and now reveal is that we now have evidence from at least two or three sources that gives their version of how it happens. At least two of the people who has given us information has said that they overheard conversations of people who were plotting to kill him.

So let me answer that question. First of all, from what we know now, that he was allured from the home by a particular young woman. And the second thing, which is most important, that he was actually, once he got out of the house, that he was taken for all practical purposes hostage, or custody of him, you know, that did not have to be by any bruises, it didn't have to be that he even put up a struggle because there are ways of attacking the person, and subduing them without having lacerations.

We believe that he was either perhaps strangled, and if he wasn't strangled, that some other types of force was used on him. We can't say right now what that was, but we do know that the story that have been told to us, and the information we have acquired lead towards the fact, number one, he was allured from the house, and number two, once he was allured some people obviously jumped on him, or took custody of him, and there was not a struggle, according to the autopsy report.

Let me also say this. On Friday night, I viewed a videotape of the body that was shot in the funeral home. The videotape went over the body very thoroughly, I got a chance to see the whole body after the first autopsy. There was a mark in the back of the neck which is very curious that we want to take a look at.

To put this matter to rest, once and for all, I have in fact recommended to attorney Chambliss, who is the family attorney down there, that another autopsy be done with now new facts that we have begin to discover and, see what happens then, because there may be a possibility the body needs to be exhumed.

COSSACK: Lewis, I understand what you are saying, but if you could be clearer for me. You have indicated to us that you believe now he was lured from the home. There were other people in the house when he left that house that evening. Isn't that true?

MYERS: No, there was only one other person who was in the house watching television. Raynard left the house, and said I will be back. It is now kind of painfully apparent that somebody was outside and called him outside. The other young man who was in the house remained in the house, listening to in fact a basketball game.

COSSACK: But Lewis, there were no tracks, as I understand it, and correct me if I'm wrong, there were no tracks of any cars, there were no fingerprints, there were no scratches on the tree that would indicate that a struggle went on; in that true?

MYERS: Roger, no, that is not true at all.


MYERS: First of all, you have to realize that this is in a rural area, it would be impossible, because there was not rain like that. There were no tracks because there was, in fact, it would be impossible to actually identify tracks. And secondly, when the body was found, and this is very crucial, the body was not hanging or swinging from the tree, the body was standing up against the tree.

Raynard Johnson is 6' 1," weighed 170 pounds, and the tree is just a little bit taller than him. If he would have been lynched on that tree, he would have been almost taller than the tree. The notion that this was a suicide borders on the incredible, once you look at the physical evidence.

There are no fingerprints, I think anybody on the program, including the FBI agent, probably could tell you, the likelihood of lifting prints from a tree in that type of surface borders on the undoable.

COSSACK: In fact, Lewis, the autopsy reports indicates that he's 5' 9," 170 pounds.

MYERS: He is a little bit taller than 5' 9". You know we have measured his height comparatively with the tree. We have gone over that tree with law enforcement experts. What you need to know, I have taught criminal investigations in the City College of Chicago for almost 12 years, I have training hundreds of law enforcement officers. So I don't walk into this as a novice, I walk into it with a person with almost 20 years of experience in criminal investigation.

COSSACK: Lewis, tell us about the audiotapes. The FBI says it is in possession of an answering machine audio tape, but are there other audio tapes? and what do they show?

MYERS: There are three tapes. In fact, shortly, almost 48 hours after this murder, a young lady, whom I will not identify on national television, telephoned and called and said that she had information about the murder. The brother of Raynard Johnson, along with several family members, went to a place in Columbia, Mississippi, the young lady had left that place, and she called back, and they taped what she said off of the phone. That tape recording, several days later, was provided to an FBI agent in Mississippi.

Now, Roger Johnson, who was the brother that gave the agent the tape, later contacted the agent who said that somehow there was some question of hearing the tape or the audibility of the tape. However, when the tape was handed to the agent, it was very clear. At least four persons heard the tape. It was playing and it was not malfunctioning.

Subsequent to that, there was a telephone call placed to the home and that was also recorded off of an answering machine. That tape I personally provided to the FBI on Thursday in Washington, D.C. at the Rainbow/PUSH office. So they have that tape.

The third tape was another tape that involved an interview with at least two individuals who gave information, and shared information about the murder. That particular tape has not been turned over but, as I told the Federal Bureau of Investigation and attorney general on Wednesday, we will be happy to cooperate, and in fact give them that tape.

Each one of those tapes, by the way, has names of persons who were -- who are high potential suspects.

COSSACK: I was just going to ask you that, and we just have a few seconds left now. Lewis, on any of these tapes, are the people that you believe perpetrated the murder named?

MYERS: Absolutely. In fact, there are at least three names that have come up in three tapes, and each one of the persons names who have come up had had prior confrontations, one physical with Raynard Johnson.

COSSACK: Will you tell us those names?

MYERS: No, I won't. I won't do that because I won't compromise the investigation like that. However, we have the names, and let me just say this, the FBI has the names, we gave them that information on Thursday.

COSSACK: OK, thank you. Let's take a break. Up next, can autopsy reports tell us whether Raynard Johnson's death was a suicide or a murder? Stay with us.


COSSACK: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the World Wide Web. Just log onto We now provide a live video feed, Monday through Friday, at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. And if you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand. You can also interact with our show and even join our chat room.


REV. JESSE JACKSON, RAINBOW COALITION: There is no forensic evidence that he committed suicide. And ordinarily in an investigation, you will assume homicide until you can prove suicide.


COSSACK: The official autopsy report concludes that Raynard Johnson committed suicide. Lewis, you indicated earlier in the show that when Raynard Johnson's body was discovered by his father, he was propped up next to the tree. But the official autopsy report says that he was found by his father hanging by the neck in a tree in a -- with a braided leather belt around his neck. Father cut him down and wrapped him in a blanket. There seems to be a conflict there.

MYERS: Yes, that's in the official autopsy report. That's not what the...

COSSACK: Is that wrong?

MYERS: Yes, it is partially wrong. First of all, there was a braided belt. That's number one.


MYERS: Number two, the evidence is that he never -- he did not own himself a braided belt. Number three, as to how he was found, he wasn't found hanging from the tree. In fact, his feet were on the ground, according to his father, and he was facing the tree. That's a little bit different. And that's also significant for any forensic purposes, possibly.

COSSACK: All right, let's now join -- go to Dr. Werner Spitz who's joining us.

Dr. Spitz, you've had an opportunity, I know, to review this report. It indicates, to me at least, is that there doesn't seem to be any physical evidence that would conclude that this was a homicide rather than a suicide. Explain to us why.

DR. WERNER SPITZ, MEDICAL EXAMINER: You are completely right. There is no evidence of any injury on the body other than the imprint of the noose around the neck, which is a typical hanging noose, because you will note that your autopsy report indicates a sharp curvature upwards below the right side of the jaw that is a sharp abrasion, a sharp scraping towards the branch that he's hanging from; the fact you know that there is some misunderstanding with whether he was feet on the ground or feet off the ground. Really, by right, that not really make a big difference.

COSSACK: Why is that?

SPITZ: Because people can hang themselves in just about any position. You can lie on the ground and die from hanging. The hanging is not necessarily a obstruction of the airway. The hanging is executed by the fact that there is pressure on the blood vessels that bring the blood to the brain and take it out of the brain. And that pressure is approximately six pounds per square inch. So you really don't need a whole lot of pressure. Standing up and bending the knees is totally enough. The head weighs 10 pounds, or nine to 11 pounds in most people.

COSSACK: But would a human being -- would anyone be -- would it be possible to do that to yourself?

SPITZ: Absolutely.

COSSACK: I mean, the notion of standing up and bending your knees until you pass out. I mean, I would think the natural reflex would make you stop that.

SPITZ: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Please understand that, first of all, it has to be understood before you even start doing anything, it has to be understood that suicide is an irrational act and we rational people have some degree of difficulty in interpreting it. That is why you have all these innuendoes and suggestions. And I'm not saying that, in this case, they are wrong, but there is no foundation at this point, that I can see, where there is any reason to believe that this is an act perpetrated by somebody else.

COSSACK: What would you expect to see that you don't see in this report if you were to conclude that this was an act perpetrated by someone else.

SPITZ: Well, first of all, the noose is a clean noose around the neck. It's not one that waffles up and down where you have a very broad type of abrasion where he is shaking to get out of the noose or attempting to get out of the noose.

By the way, his hands, as I understand, are clear. That is, they are not tied or they are not restricted. Theoretically, he could have raised himself on his hands at least for a while and thereby imprinted some -- or caused some bruising on the skin of the neck, and even may be imprint fingernails, which is not an unusual finding. The autopsy report lists nothing along those lines. And furthermore, if the feet are indeed on the ground, I fail to understand even more so why there is no attempt to release himself from the restraint.

The findings in the inside of the body, at the time -- that is, at the time of autopsy, show no evidence of any bruising in the neck, in the muscles, in the soft the tissues. The skeletal structures, that is the gristle and the bone inside, the bony support of the airway, show no evidence of fracture. There is no evidence of bruising anywhere. There is, like you said, no evidence of flesh or tissue or blood or skin under the fingernails. There is just nothing in this autopsy report that indicates other than a self-perpetrated act here, not involving anybody else.

COSSACK: All right, Dr. Spitz, let's take a break.

Up next, who should investigate Raynard Johnson's death, the FBI or local authorities? Stay with us.


Q: Why was former au pair Louise Woodward in a Chester, England court with her parents today?

A: Gary and Sue Woodward are on trial for allegedly defrauding a fund set up to pay their daughter's legal expenses.

In 1997, a Boston jury found Louise Woodward guilty in the death of a child in her care.



COSSACK: Attorney General Janet Reno met with the Johnson family last week and assured them that the federal investigators would pursue every lead.

Clint, let's talk about pursuing a lead. I am going to put you in charge of the investigation and give you some clues. First of all, where would you start? And let me also tell you that there has been reports that there was some unusual heavy traffic around the Johnson home just a couple of days prior to these events, that trucks were going back and forth there, and there are some allegations that this is a rural place in Mississippi, that the Johnson boy went out with white women and there may have been some bad feelings about that. What would you do about that?

CLINT VAN ZANDT, FORMER FBI AGENT: Well, you know, Roger, this is the type of investigation there's going to be a lot of emotions involved. And that's why I think the FBI is a good agency to do this. Number one, there shouldn't be anything that is smacking of a collusion or anything else, or that would suggest the locals aren't going to investigate this because of incidents that happened 40 years ago or something like that, or 40 days ago, whatever the situation is. But what you are looking at are three different things. You are looking at the behavioral component, you are looking at the forensic component, and you are looking at the overall criminal investigation. Behaviorally, is there anything in this young man's recent past that would suggest that he might commit some time of act like this?

Number two, as Dr. Spitz just told us, is there anything forensic? Roger, I've seen a man commit suicide with a shoestring around a door knob, and letting his body weight hold him down. I've seen another man hang himself from a goal post. I saw a third man go into a garage, lay down under a hoist, use a pole, push the hoist, and let the hoist come down on him, and crush him. These are not reasonable acts, but they take place.

COSSACK: I understand that, but there seems to be no motive for this young man to go ahead and do this. And one of the things I think Lewis Myers points out forcefully is, you know: Why would he do this? There was nothing in his life that would cause him to do this.

VAN ZANDT: And that is the biggest challenge here is that, what is going to push your button or my button, now at 17, we are emotional, things that you and I can whether very easily in life, we would say, boy, that was a tough one, I've got a challenge, when are you young they have a major impact on you. So is there a girlfriend situation? is there drugs? what is going on in his life?

COSSACK: You know, people break up with their girlfriends and they don't commit suicide.

VAN ZANDT: Absolutely, every day.

COSSACK: The one piece of evidence here that no one has yet been able to explain is this belt that was used to hang -- was used to kill him, and that the family believes didn't belong to him.

VAN ZANDT: Roger, I've got three kids, and when they grow up, I guarantee you articles of clothing in my house did not always belong to my kids, they borrowed, they traded, they used back and forth.

COSSACK: Lewis Myers, join me on this. No one in his family had ever seen that belt before.

MYERS: Let me tell the agent something. I also have a kid too, but one thing your kids' problem, you don't have a history of a black young man 17 years old who was dating more than six white folk in Mississippi. Let's clear that up right now, in terms of the motive.

I do think you have to look at the behavior. And I understand what the good doctor is saying, but let me tell him something. First of all, you know, it takes two things to really make a homicide or an allegation, not just what the pathological report says, but whether or not there is any other external criminal agency.

To the extent that there were other reasons that this young man could have been killed that would not be apparent on a body, there are other ways that he could have been stole and hurt that does not show up on the autopsy. So the mere fact that nothing in the autopsy is consistent with a homicide does not mean a homicide did not in fact occur. What it means is that somebody had to do some investigation because the criminal agency lies in the information...

COSSACK: Lewis, let me have Dr. Spitz, come back. I just found out, I'm terribly sorry, that we are out of time. I guess this show has just gone by too quickly for me. That's all the time we have. Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching.

Today on CNN's "TALKBACK LIVE": Maureen Reagan talks about Alzheimer's disease and how it impacts the family. That's today, at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, noon Pacific.

And we'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.



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