SCOTT COUNTY, Miss. – On the night of Feb. 8, 2018, Willie Andrew Jones Jr. and Alexis Rankin argued in the car on the way to her parents' home in Scott County, Mississippi.
The couple were going through a rough patch in their relationship, but they had a 3-month-old child together, and the 21-year-old Jones wanted to reconcile.
They continued fighting when they arrived at the 19-year-old Rankin’s home, where a group of her family members was staying. At some point, Jones walked out, leaving Rankin inside. Not long afterward, Rankin’s stepfather was calling 911 to say Jones was dead.
The Black man was found hanging from a tree in the yard of his white girlfriend’s home, 50 feet (15 meters) from the house and about 5 feet (1.5 meters) from the roadway.
The young man’s feet were touching the ground and his knees were bent. His body was slumped under the young pecan tree, a blue and white cloth belt wrapped around his neck. A yellow nylon cord attached to the buckle was tied around a branch of the tree.
The sheriff's department ruled the hanging a suicide; Jones' family believes he was lynched. The case has touched a raw nerve in a state whose past is tainted by the frequent lynchings of Black people, and at a time of national reckoning over how law enforcement interacts with African Americans and other minorities.
Jones' family refuses to accept the sheriff's ruling and is asking that the case be reopened. After prosecutors initially declined to move forward with charges, the family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit alleging that Rankin's stepfather, Harold O’Bryant Jr., either killed Jones or failed to prevent Jones from killing himself. O’Bryant never responded to the lawsuit, and in April, a Jackson-area judge awarded relatives close to $11.4 million.
According to a police report, O’Bryant told an officer that Jones said he was going to kill himself just before he walked out. O'Bryant said he then saw Jones walk across the front yard with a rope in his hand, but he said he didn't take the threat seriously.
Jones’ mother, Tammie Townsend, said her son had never expressed suicidal thoughts to her. She said he had a sports injury that prevented him from being able to lift his arm above his head, something she said would have made it physically impossible to hang himself.
Jones’ family says O’Bryant was prejudiced against Jones because of his race and didn’t approve of his stepdaughter dating a Black man. The lawsuit states that O’Bryant has a history of erratic and violent behavior and claims he made threatening comments about Jones in the past, as well as about another of Rankin’s boyfriends, who is also Black.
O’Bryant adamantly denies the allegations.
“If they had seen anything even a little wrong, I’d have been thrown in jail,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They’re trying to make it seem like I’m some big head white supremacist or something. I didn’t touch him.”
O’Bryant said he never responded to the lawsuit or defended himself in court because he never received a summons, though court records indicate the paperwork was mailed to him and also hand-delivered to a family member living at his house. O’Bryant said the relative was struggling with drug addiction at the time and never gave it to him.
He says he now wants to appeal but doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer.
Working as a car mechanic, O'Bryant said he can't put together $11 some days. “I sure don't have $11 million," he said.
At the same time, he said, his family has been forced to move from their home. He said that after Jones’ death, a drive-by shooter sprayed his house with bullets while his grandchildren were inside.
But Jill Collen Jefferson, a civil rights attorney representing the family, described the case as “a modern-day lynching."
Similar allegations have arisen in other states. Just last week in Massachusetts, the family of a 16-year-old Black girl who was found dead in a wooded area in April were contesting a medical examiner's finding that she hanged herself from a tree.
And in the spring of 2020, family members and activists immediately called for further investigation after four Black people were found hanging from trees in the span of one month in California, New York and Texas. Authorities ruled every case to be a suicide.
Civil rights activists have asserted that Black people are less likely to take their own lives by hanging.
“Black men don’t hang themselves,” Jackson activist Nia Umoja told the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant in 2019, after Jones’ death. “We know our past.”
There is understandable distrust of law enforcement within the Black community because of a long history in the U.S. of public officials using rulings of suicide to cover up lynchings, according to Jay Driskell, a consulting historian with The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University.
"We legitimately do not trust the official transcripts of ... police and judges and investigators because they’ve proven so untrustworthy in the past,” Driskell said.
From Reconstruction through 1950, when lynchings were at their highest, Mississippi had more than any other state, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. During that time, the state had 655 lynchings compared to 593 in Georgia and 549 in Louisiana.
Today, Sheriff Mike Lee noted, Scott County is a melting pot where people live and work together peacefully, largely because of the factories and mills in the area.
Lee, who is white, rejects the idea that Jones was lynched. He said he trusts the work of his investigators on the case, many of whom are Black. He noted that his office passed the case along to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the FBI. A grand jury saw the evidence and did not think there was reason to prosecute, however.
“My department — no ifs, ands or buts about it — if we felt that someone had been targeted because of race, not only would we make that arrest, it would be very public,” he said.
One reason Lee said investigators felt Jones' death was a suicide is that O’Bryant himself comes from a multiracial family. He had a Black stepfather, has five biracial grandchildren and has lived in majority-Black neighborhoods all his life.
But Jefferson, the Joneses’ lawyer, noted that being around Black people doesn’t preclude someone from being racist. In fact, that could be more of a reason for O'Bryant to lash out, she said.
Among other allegations, the lawsuit alleges O’Bryant once charged at a different Black boyfriend of Rankin's with a broken bottle while shouting racial epithets. O’Bryant denies this.
He did acknowledge that when he was young, he was told in church that interracial dating was wrong.
“I still feel that it’s not right, but hey, it is what it is. I ain’t against it," O'Bryant said. He added that he liked Jones, who was respectful and helped him on building projects.
Rankin is now married to a Black man. She said O'Bryant has never tried to dissuade her from dating someone of another race.
Townsend, Jones' mother, described her son as a “country boy,” who loved dogs, chickens and most of all, his horse Fancy, which he rode every day. He was a talented sketch artist, played for the high school football team and had dreams of being a supervisor on an oil pipeline.
He met Rankin in eighth grade and they began dating in 2017. Their baby boy was born later that year. Jones stayed at the O'Bryants' house often, the family said.
Townsend said the night of her son’s death, she received a call from the O’Bryants, who told her Jones and Rankin had been fighting and asked her to pick him up. She said they didn't say anything about him trying to hurt himself. When she called back not long afterward, someone on the other end of the line told her he had hanged himself.
“I knew that there’s no possible way that he did this,” she said.
By the time Townsend arrived at the home, the street was already cordoned off with crime scene tape.
When she was finally able to view his body, she saw what looked like scratch marks and cigarette burns. Her son’s shoulder appeared dislocated, something that often happened when it became jostled, she said.
Investigators said the markings were from injections made when Jones’ body was embalmed. An autopsy did not reveal signs of foul play, they said.
The past three years have been long for Townsend after losing her eldest son.
“I could get all the money in the world, but to have someone paying, like in jail time, locked up for killing my son, that’s what I want,” she said.
The District Attorney for Scott County, Steven Kilgore, said his office is open to pursuing a criminal case if new evidence is brought forward, but won’t present a case to a grand jury with the same evidence.
“If we had a reason to reopen it, we would do it without hesitation,” he said. “As of now, we don’t have a reason to do that.”
Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.