CLARKSDALE, Miss. — An attorney for relatives of a slain Mississippi mayoral candidate said Thursday that the sheriff’s department has mishandled evidence and withheld information about its investigation.
Attorney Daryl Parks made the comments during a news conference outside the family home of the late Clarksdale mayoral candidate Marco McMillian, whose nude and battered body was found Feb. 27 near a Mississippi River levee.
Parks stood next to McMillian’s mother during the news conference, flanked by family and friends with a poster-sized photograph of McMillian attached to the exterior wall of the one-story brick house.
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Parks, a lawyer with the Florida firm Parks & Crump, demanded that the Justice Department investigate.
The FBI says it’s monitoring the investigation, but Parks wants agents actively involved.
A sheriff’s spokesman said the department may comment later.
McMillian’s death drew national attention after his campaign said he was the first viable, openly gay candidate for office in Mississippi.
McMillian’s sexuality was not an issue in his campaign, but because the 33-year-old aspiring politician was gay and black, some speculated that his death might have been a hate crime.
The suspect in the case also is black.
McMillian’s body was found one day after Lawrence Reed crashed McMillian’s SUV head-on into another vehicle.
Reed was treated for injuries at the Regional Medical Center in Memphis, Tenn., and charged with murder after his release from the hospital. He was returned to Coahoma County, Miss., and has been held without bond.
An investigator’s affidavit filed in Coahoma County Justice Court says Reed strangled McMillian. It offers no other details.
Parks said the sheriff’s department “truly did not properly handle the evidence” by releasing the SUV from its custody and letting it sit exposed to the elements at a tow yard before an insurance company hauled it off.
Parks said that the sheriff’s department has not told McMillian’s family anything about the investigation so he has no way of knowing if other evidence has been mishandled.
“We’ve come to a point now where we need answers. We’re demanding answers.” Parks said.
Parks is no stranger to high-profile cases. His firm also represented the family of Trayvon Martin, the teenager whose February 2012 death at the hands of a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., sparked protests and outrage.
Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, said her organization hopes to bring just as much attention to the case in Clarksdale.
“I’m not stopping until the Department of Justice is here,” she said.
The sheriff’s office has released little information about the case. McMillian’s family said they’re not sure how McMillian knew Reed or why they would have been together.
Parks said the injuries suggest something more than a mere “tussle” occurred. He likened the injuries to torture and suggested that more than one person may have been involved.
The autopsy report said there were abrasions and lacerations on McMillian’s head, back and legs and multiple “areas of second and third degree burns” on his body. Some of the cuts were from a “sharp and or pointed object,” it said.
“Some say the two were romantically involved while others are pleading the ‘gay panic’ defense, insinuating that Marco McMillian made unwanted advances to the murder suspect, Lawrence Reed,” the National Black Justice Coalition said in the announcement of the news conference.
On its website, the coalition describes itself as “a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.”
Federal law covers acts motivated by bias against sexual orientation, while Mississippi’s state law against hate crimes covers acts motivated by race, but not sexual orientation.
Parks said even the autopsy report released last week raised more questions than answers.
The report said Reed admitted to killing McMillian, but didn’t give a possible motive.
And it said McMillian died from asphyxia, or a lack of oxygen, but didn’t give a precise reason for the death beyond calling it a homicide. It said blunt force trauma most likely contributed to death. But a preliminary report from the days after the autopsy were performed said the trauma was not lethal.
In a letter to Coahoma County Sheriff Charles Jones dated May 1, McMillian’s mother, Patricia Unger, said she feels the investigation “has not been conducted in an ethical manner.”
“Please know that I am not questioning your expertise,” she wrote to the sheriff. “I am merely trying to find answers to questions that I have about the murder investigation of my only child.”
Unger said in the letter that she has been in contact with the sheriff twice, the day McMillian’s car was involved in a wreck and he was nowhere to be found, and the next day when his body was discovered.
Unger wrote that the sheriff refused to discuss the case with her husband last month because he didn’t want any leaks to the media.
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