- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

A Florida police chief yesterday said he tried to stem lynching rumors by showing the local NAACP president evidence that a May hanging was a suicide, yet the group continued to stir racial unrest.

“We don’t know where the mysterious rumors actually came from, but I first heard them shortly after the incident, the same day, directly from Linda Johnson, president of the local NAACP,” Belle Glade Chief Michael R. Miller said in an interview shortly before an inquest that led some members of Feraris Golden’s family and a circuit judge to reject the lynching theory.

Judge Harold Cohen ruled yesterday afternoon that suicide was the only explanation for the unemployed handyman’s May 28 hanging, ending Palm Beach County’s first public inquest in 18 years.

Dan Paige, a lawyer accompanying officials from the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the judge instead should have ordered a murder investigation.

“We brought you what we thought the truth was and what it reflected,” said Assistant State Attorney Doug Fulton, whose presentation vindicated Chief Miller’s suicide theory.

The investigation began about 7 a.m. May 28, when Mr. Golden’s body, rigid from rigor mortis, was found hanging from a 10-foot-high bough of a schefflera “umbrella tree” at his grandmother’s house.

Chief Miller told The Washington Times that Miss Johnson called him that morning. He said he recognized the potential for community conflict in Miss Johnson’s claims that Mr. Golden was bound and gagged. He invited Miss Johnson and a member of Mr. Golden’s family to see a videotape from the dashboard camera of the first police car arriving at the hanging scene.

“The tape shown to Miss Johnson and to a member of the Golden family selected by them clearly showed his hands were swinging free. His feet weren’t tied. He wasn’t bound and gagged in any way,” Chief Miller said.

But Miss Johnson and other state NAACP officials persisted in saying that Mr. Golden, 32, who was black, was lynched to avenge an affair with a white woman. Inquest witnesses could confirm no such affair.

“Rumors that he may have had a relationship with the daughter of a white police officer has caused the resurrection of a part of this country’s history that is excluded from most history books,” Miss Johnson wrote in June.

The Southern Poverty Law Center said the last documented U.S. lynching was in 1981, and the perpetrators were convicted of murder.

Lynch talk intensified after Christopher Wilson, the Palm Beach County associate medical examiner, ruled the death a suicide May 30.

He cited family reports that Mr. Golden was depressed and mentioned suicide because family members blamed him for his grandmother’s ill health. Crime scene photos showed no evidence of a struggle.

“If it’s a homicidal hanging, the individual is not going to lay back and let this happen to him. He’s going to resist,” Dr. Wilson said in affirming his suicide verdict from the witness stand. He revealed that Mr. Golden’s blood tested positive for cocaine and had an alcohol level of 0.334 percent, more than four times higher than the point at which a person is legally too drunk to drive in Florida.

Inquest spectators questioned whether Mr. Golden was too drunk to climb into the tree from which he was found hanging.

Presentation at the inquest of the knotted green bedsheet that police cut from around Mr. Golden’s neck surprised some relatives even before the verdict, and led them to change their minds and accept the suicide theory.

An Associated Press report on lynching claims as recently as Sunday said Mr. Golden’s noose was fashioned from his own shirt and that his hands were bound behind his back.

Shresee Lumpkin, an aunt of Mr. Golden’s, recognized the twin-size bedsheet as coming from his room at his grandmother’s house.

“It changed my view,” Miss Lumpkin told reporters.

“That means he got it out of his room and used it,” said Henry Drummer, Mr. Golden’s stepfather.

“Today the issue was ‘A suicide was committed.’ Period,” Florida NAACP President Adora Obi Nweze said after hearing the first 14 witnesses.

Chief Miller said the investigation was led by Detective Steve Sawyer, a white officer supervised by Detective Sgt. Jeffers Walker, who is black. He said another black uniformed officer, Kenwood Campbell, was the first to arrive at the scene.

“I understand and respect the Golden family’s grief and their right to ask questions and get answers to those questions. But we never found one piece of information. We never got one phone call, one witness, one scintilla of evidence that indicated it was anything but suicide,” Chief Miller said.

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