Family demands answers in candidate's death

By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Relatives of a slain Mississippi mayoral candidate are renewing their push for a federal investigation amid their complaints that local officials are withholding information about the case.

Clarksdale mayoral candidate Marco McMillian’s nude and battered body was found Feb. 27 near a Mississippi River levee. The case 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 parents are planning a news conference Thursday in Clarksdale with the National Black Justice Coalition and a lawyer from the firm of Parks & Crump, which also represented the family of Trayvon Martin. Martin was the teenager whose February 2012 death at the hands of a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., sparked protests and outrage.

“Just like they had to make people conscious in Sanford, Florida, and the rest of the country, we’re hoping to bring that same level of attention to this homicide, this murder,” coalition executive director and CEO Sharon Lettman-Hicks said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Attorney Daryl Parks told The Associated Press on Wednesday that McMillian’s parents want a “fair and efficient investigation” but are concerned that so little information has been released about the death.

“We are simply demanding that there be a federal investigation,” Parks said.

Lawrence Reed is charged with murder in the case.

“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.

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.

Daniel McMullen, the FBI’s special agent in charge in Mississippi, has said the agency has been “monitoring” the state investigation since March 1. FBI spokeswoman Deborah Madden said Wednesday that the agency is still doing so and referred questions to the Coahoma County Sheriff’s Office, the lead agency in the investigation.

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.

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.

“The problem has been no action, no communication with the family whatsoever about what is going on with Marco’s case,” said Carter Womack, McMillian’s godfather and a spokesman for the family.

A spokesman for the sheriff’s department didn’t immediately respond to a message Wednesday.

Parks, the family’s attorney, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that the injuries suggest something more than a mere “tussle” occurred.

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.

“It’s almost a calculated, torture-type death,” Parks said.

McMillian’s body was found one day after 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.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, asked the FBI on March 5 to review the case for possible hate crime charges.

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Follow Mohr at http://twitter.com/holbrookmohr