The mysterious death of an African American [male] conjures up suspicions, fears, and hostilities that are the legacy of America’s tainted history of racial injustice. Our nation bears these burdens as a judgment for its misdeeds. Those indifferent to this legacy readily assert that racism no longer exists in American society and thus cries of racism are unfounded. And yet, such assertions were common in 1955, the year of the murder of Emmett Till. What some tout as American virtue, both in the New England states and the South, co-existed during the most savage experiences of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade up through jim crow segregation. For what a nation allowed, it must also understand. A mysterious death merits investigation until every question receives a sufficient answer. This is true in the case of former Jasper, Tx. resident and now deceased, Alfred Wright.
On Monday evening, the office of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee [D-TX] announced a federal investigation, headed by the FBI and Texas Ranger, into the death of Alfred Wright. Jackson announced, “The Department of Justice will investigate and take appropriate action in connection with the tragic and mysterious death of Alfred Wright, a 28-year-old African-American male from Jasper, Texas.“
On Nov. 7, 2013, a 28-year-old African American from Jasper, TX goes missing in nearby Hemphill, roughly 40 miles to the north. For four days, Sabine County Sheriff Thomas Maddox conducts a search to locate the missing physical therapist, employing specially-trained cadaver search dogs; but to no avail. Maddox calls off the search due to the mounting toll on limited policing personnel and financial constraints — despite citizens’ efforts to underwrite the cost of a continued search. A desperate private search leads the family back to a previously scanned area, only to find the body laying in a wooded field in Sabine County, east of Highway 87. The initial autopsy reports a cause of death, subsequently disputed by an autopsy sponsored by the family.
And the case of Alfred Wright joins a growing list of deaths that revives a problem, some call “our root sin”, that has plagued our nation since its early beginnings.
Alfred Wright’s truck malfunctioned while en-route to a see a patient. He pulled into a small parking lot in front of CL&M Grocery on Highway 87 outside Hemphill, TX. According to his wife, Lauren, the former football star contacted her to get a ride. Unable to travel, Wright’s parents were contacted and agreed to drive to Hemphill. In the interim, Lauren Wright made several text message attempts to reach her husband. When they finally contacted, according to Mrs. Wright, the father of two sounded aspirated. Soon after, contact ceased. When Wright reappears, he is dead. His body is practically naked in the foliage – only wearing briefs, socks, and shoes. Two teeth are missing. An ear is gone. And his neck is slashed. Understandably, the family seriously questions the autopsy of this family man, scholar, athlete, and dedicated professional.
AUTOPSY DISPUTE AND INVESTIGATION CONCERNS
The Wright case is embroiled in controversy that surrounds two conflicting autopsies. In his report, forensics pathologist and Jefferson County Medical Examiner Dr. John Ralston concluded Wright died from accidental combined-drug intoxication. Ralston’s report noted that Wright’s body showed traces of cocaine, methamphetamine, and amphetamine.
However, the family hired a Houston forensic pathologist to conduct a second autopsy. In a Dec. 20, 2013 report, Dr. Grossberg-Krishnan disputed the initial autopsy, noting, “Based on the investigation I have a high index of suspicion that this is a homicide. I base that opinion on circumstances surrounding the death, how and where the body was found, and my findings at autopsy.”
Family attorney, Ryan MacLeod, raises additional concerns about the Ralston autopsy. According to MacLeod, the initial autopsy reported Wright’s time of death as Nov. 25, 2013 at 7 p.m., strangely the time in which the body was found, 19 days after Wright went missing. Further. Grossberg-Krishnan noted severe trauma to Wright’s body, which would strongly point to homicide. The Ralston report did not indicate bodily trauma.
In addition to disputes over the initial autopsy, the Wright family is particularly concerned about what they believe has been a spotty investigation. During a Jan. 23 meeting with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, MacLeod and concerned family members noted that Wright’s truck had not been searched. Further, local authorities had failed to question persons who found Wright’s body. And persons who last spoke with Wright had not given formal statements. Lee indicated in a request to US Attorney General Eric Holder that an inadequate local investigation, conflicting autopsies, and statements made by the Sabine County Sheriff attributing the mystery to a drug overdose before the body was found merited federal intervention.
EVER-UNFOLDING HISTORY OF RACE AND JUSTICE
Wright’s death exposes the deep divide that remains in American society. Those who live in-the-moment find no reason to question Sabine County’s investigation and autopsy. This, however, reflects an indifference to a legacy of racial hatred that we cannot deny. As such, we cannot separate the extent of historical racial injustice from the tragic events of today. Wright’s death is one of countless mysterious cases of black men in the south and across the country immediately ruled a suicide or that occurred in such heinous fashion to make plausible suspicions of a hate crime.
Wright was a resident of Jasper, Tx. The small town near the Louisiana border where, on June 7, 1998, James Byrd, Jr. was brutally beaten. Shackled by a 25-foot heavy gauge logging chain. And dragged-to-death 1.5 miles from the rear of a pickup truck.
Three men were convicted in the murder. Lawrence Russell Brewer (31) was a white supremacist, who before his Sept. 21, 2011 execution told a local television news outlet, “As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.” John King (23), who is on death row, beat Byrd with a bat and chained Byrd to the truck used to drag Byrd to his death. And Shawn Berry (24), who is serving a life sentence, drove the truck used in the crime. The prosecution determined that it lack sufficient evidence to find that Berry acted out of racism. Though the three were brought to justice, the Byrd murder serves as proof that the most evil spirits that once burned and lynched blacks remain in American society today.
Byrd suffered overwhelming trauma. Brewer revealed that Berry slashed Byrd’s throat before they dragged his body. The force of the dragging broke numerous bones and mutilated Byrd’s flesh. The autopsy noted that Byrd attempted to hold his head up during the dragging. However, both his right arm and head were severed after Byrd’s dragged body hit a culvert.
After executing Byrd, leaving parts of his body in 81 places and dumping his remains in front of an African American church on Huff Creek Road, the three murderers went to a barbecue in a nearby area. The absolute indifference to what they had done and certainty that they would avoid justice underscores the de-valuing some Americans still harbor towards blacks.
The murder of James Craig Anderson (49) of Jackson, Miss. brought racial hatred into the family rooms of America in full view. On the night of June 25, 2011, Deryl Dedmon (18) and a group of teens were drinking at a party in mostly white Rankin County, Mississippi. The group set out to visit an all-night store that sells beer. It was during this time that Dedmon, according to police, said to his friends, “Let’s go fuck with some niggers.“
Dedmon, in his 1998 Ford-250 and accompanied by friends in a white Jeep Cherokee (driven by William Montgomery), drove about 16 miles into a largely black area of neighboring Jackson. The teens encountered Anderson near a truck in a Metro Inn motel.
In statements given to authorities, the teens claimed that Anderson was trying to break into the vehicle. Unbeknownst to the group, Anderson owned the truck, but had lost his keys. And without provocation, commenced to beating him repeatedly. After the beating, Montgomery returned to his vehicle and exited the scene. Dedmon and two girls entered his truck, with Dedmon raising his fist and, according to witnesses, yelling, “White power!” And while leaving, Dedmon drove the truck onto the curve, running over the dazed Anderson.
The teens unaware that the incident was captured on video by a nearby surveillance camera. Witnesses further revealed that in a conversation that took place with the group that reconvened at a local McDonald’s, Dedmon celebrated, “I ran that nigger over.”[important]A letter from Anderson’s sister reflecting the family’s anti-death penalty Christian values spared Dedmon life: “They also have caused our family unspeakable pain and grief. But our loss will not be lessened by the state taking the life of another. … We also oppose the death penalty because it historically has been used in Mississippi and the South primarily against people of color for killing whites. Executing James’ killers will not help balance the scales. But sparing them may help to spark a dialogue that one day will lead to the elimination of capital punishment.”[/important]
The death of Gregory Johnson, Jr. at San Jose State University on Nov. 22, 2008 is shrouded in disturbing questions. The kinesiology major died inside the Sigma Chi fraternity house in what the medical examiner ruled a suicide. According to official reports, Johnson was found hanging in the basement of the fraternity house occupied by Sigma Chi, the predominantly white organization Johnson had joined roughly 18 months earlier. On the evening of Johnson’s death, Sigma Chi was hosting a party that attracted a large number of attendees.
The claim that Johnson committed suicide is complicated by a number of factors. Initially, the roommate who found Johnson indicated that he was in a seated position with his legs to the front. His buttocks were said to be an inch from the floor. Johnson was hanging from piping located 5-feet, 10-inches above the floor. A 14-gauge extension cord was wrapped around Johnson’s neck. In the subsequent version of the findings, Johnson’s roommate stated that he found his fraternity brother in a kneeling position, with his legs to the rear. Johnson’s mother points out that experts conveyed a person’s whose legs are close to the floor would automatically react to a choking sensation by standing; this cast doubt that Johnson would have died as indicated in official reports.
The coroner indicated that Sigma Chi members had identified the body, preventing his mother from viewing the body for two weeks. Upon her review, the mother took a series of photos that show no evidence of a hanging. Most notably, Johnson’s neck did not have tension bruises that are typical in hanging cases. Further, Mrs. Johnson reported seeing a large gash cross her son’s cranium area, with brain matter having been released from the wound. This would signal blunt-force trauma to Johnson’s head.
The Johnson family’s search for answers has taken requests up through various levels of law enforcement, including the FBI. This included the case of the Johnson death reaching Attorney General Eric Holder. However, according to Mrs. Johnson, Holder denied the request for investigation on the grounds that doing so would compromise national security. It remains to be seen how this mysterious death would pose a risk to our nation’s security interests. Unfortunately, the Sigma Chi house underwent renovations, complicating the prospects for further forensic inquiry at the site of Johnson’s death. Johnson was not only an excellent student and Judo expert, but also an ordained minister; a very unlikely profile of a suicide victim.
On Dec. 3, 2010, the body of Frederick Jermaine Carter (26) was discovered, hanging from an oak tree in Greenwood, Miss. The Sunflower County resident and his stepfather were painting a structure in a wealthy, predominantly white section of Greenwood when the stepfather removed himself from the work-site to get additional tools.
The local sheriff posited that Carter, who suffered from mental illness, wandered away during his stepfather’s absence. According to the official reports, Carter perched a table against a tree. Mounted the table. Looped one end of the rope around a branch tied the opposite end around his neck. Then kicked away the table causing him to hang. Greenwood residents divided largely along racial lines as to the cause of Carter’s death. Derrick Johnson, Miss. President of the NAACP expressed a lack of confidence in authorities that immediately followed a suicide narrative. Suspicions escalated in the aftermath of the official report by Mississippi State Deputy Medical Examiner, Dr. Adel Shaker, that ruled our suicide in Carter’s death.
Carter’s death occurred approximately 10 miles south of Money, Miss., known for the 1955 gruesome slaying of 14-year-old Emmett Till whose body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River. In Nov. 2011, Dr. Shaker’s employment with the State of Mississippi ended due to a personnel matter. Dr. Shaker’s departure has put a thicker cloud over the investigation and Carter’s death, in-general.
It is irreconcilable that a nation that appreciates Jewish concerns about the rise of genocidal sentiments and one that worries about terrorism finds it difficult to see why blacks view the Alfred Wright case and countless other American tragedies through a historical lens. — Kenneth D. Price
The problem of Alfred Wright’s death is an American problem. The history of hate crimes against African Americans both defines and transcends deep-seated sentiments about the events of Nov. 7, 2013 in Hemphill, TX. The haze that covers the investigation of Wright’s death is one that morphs hastily-completed reports with the centuries of the African American experience.
The realities of a violent America is that people kill people in intra- and inter-racial incidents. However, while whites have relied upon justice in such incidents, African Americans have and continue to hope against hope for justice in these horrible episodes. A hope that Moses Wright maintained in a jim crow courtroom where, at the risk of his life, he identified the men who came under the cover of night to carry away the young Emmett Till.
Alfred Wright’s death, while an isolated incident, took place in a society not-so-isolated from racial undercurrent. One that questions the birthplace of Barack Obama and erects an effigy of the nation’s President hanging by a noose in what a Facebook group would refer to as a “national holiday”. Sadly, the tragic case death and Alfred Wright are woven into the same mythical post-racial America that engulfed the George Zimmerman killing of Trayvon Martin. Justice for Alfred Wright merits the highest level of investigative professionalism; that is, conducted in a fact-based manner. However, only the most cynical retreat from the historical weight of racial injustice that threads tragic deaths from Emmett Till to Jimmy Lee Jackson. From Sean Bell to Oscar Grant. And the deaths of countless more African Americans too numerous to list.
In-death, Alfred Wright is giving the nation what he would not know in-life. A watershed moment to once and for all define America in the [racially] blind justice of our creed.
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CNN Report – Mystery surrounds Texas man’s death, Published Jan. 13, 2014
Lawless America – Denise Johnson Statement
Derrick Johnson of the Miss. NAACP on the Death of Frederick Jermaine Carter
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