A county coroner in Mississippi disputed claims by family members of gay mayoral candidate Marco McMillian that McMillian was murdered on Feb. 26 by being beaten, burned and dragged naked along an earthen levee next to the Mississippi River near the City of Clarksdale.
The dispute between the family and Coahoma County coroner Scotty Meredith surfaced on Tuesday shortly after local TV news stations reported that Lawrence Reed, 22, the man charged with McMillian’s murder, told friends that he killed the mayoral candidate in self-defense after McMillian allegedly made sexual advances toward him.
Those claims created an immediate uproar among gay activists and McMillian’s friends and family members, who argued that Reed appeared to be invoking the so-called gay panic defense that has often been used by criminals who target gay men for violent attacks.
ABC 24 News of Clarksdale reported that Reed’s friends said Reed and McMillian met a few weeks before the murder at a Clarksdale bar and became friends. The friends told the TV news program they learned later that Reed, who says he’s straight, called his girlfriend immediately after he reportedly killed McMillian.
“She said she was listening to everything that was going on, how the guy was trying to get Lawrence to have a homosexual activity,” Derric Crump, one of Reed’s friends, said in an interview with the TV news program.
McMillian’s friends and family members dispute that account, saying McMillian would not do such a thing.
As developments in the case continued to unfold, the National Black Justice Coalition, an LGBT civil rights group based in Washington, D.C., announced on Tuesday that it has called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate McMillian’s murder as a possible hate crime.
“After speaking extensively with the family, community and anti-violence coalition members like the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, NBJC feels the perpetuation and validation of the ‘gay panic’ defense is irresponsible,” NBJC Executive Director Sharon Lettman-Hicks said in a March 5 letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
“The conflicting reports as well as the current racial and anti-LGBT climate in Mississippi is justification enough for a federal investigation,” Lettman-Hicks said in her letter.
The dispute between the coroner and McMillian’s family members over the nature of the injuries suffered by McMillian came at a time when neither the coroner nor the Coahoma County Sheriff’s Office have disclosed the cause of death or the motive for the murder.
According to a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, an autopsy was conducted but its results remain inconclusive until toxicology tests are completed. The coroner’s office has said the results of those tests wouldn’t be known until at least the end of the week if not later.
Meredith, the coroner, appeared to be the first public official to provide details about the nature of McMillian’s injuries when he spoke to the New York Times on Tuesday.
According to the Times, he said McMillian’s family apparently misinterpreted information he gave them a week earlier, prompting them to incorrectly disclose to the press and LGBT organizations that McMillian died from being brutally beaten, set on fire and dragged from the side of a road to the levee where his body was found on Feb. 27.
The Times reports Meredith as saying McMillian’s body was found unclothed, with a black eye and two small burns on his skin. Those injuries were not the cause of his death and the cause was still not confirmed pending the completion of the toxicology tests, he told the Times.
“There was no beating, although there may have been an altercation,” the Times quoted him as saying. “He got two little bitty burns.”
In a statement released on Tuesday prior to the publication of the New York Times story on the Times website, McMillian’s family members said the gay mayoral candidate was “brutally murdered.” He suffered severe injuries from being “beaten, dragged and burned (set afire),” the statement says.
“This was reported in our meeting with the local coroner on two occasions,” the statement says.
Meredith told the Times that burns the size of a half-dollar coin were found on McMillian’s hand and leg and that the cause of the burns were unknown.
“For this family, this was their child, whether he’s 34 years old or 3,” the Times quoted Meredith as saying. “They want to believe it was a hate crime. But we don’t have a hate crime.”
The Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, Will Rooker, told the Blade investigators linked defendant Reed to the crime after he became involved in a head-on collision with a car while he was driving McMillian’s SUV on a highway on Feb. 26. McMillian wasn’t in the SUV, and the discovery that the vehicle belonged to McMillian prompted the Sheriff’s Office to launch an investigation into his whereabouts, Rooker said.
Reed was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Memphis, Tenn., which is the closest large city to Clarksdale, where he was treated and listed in stable condition. He appeared in a Memphis court on Monday and waived his right to fight extradition to Mississippi. He was being held without bond and was expected to be returned to Coahoma County, Miss., later this week.
The Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger reported yet another wrinkle in the case on Monday. According to the newspaper, the driver of the vehicle struck by the SUV Reed was driving said friends of Reed told him Reed’s girlfriend called 911 to report that Reed confessed to her that he killed McMillian and stole McMillian’s SUV.
The 911 call was made before the traffic accident occurred, Chris Talley, the driver of the other vehicle, told the Clarion-Ledger. Talley told the Clarion-Ledger he spoke with family members of Reed’s girlfriend at the Sheriff’s Office when he went there to pick up his belongings that were left behind at the scene of the accident.
“They already knew that the vehicle was stolen when the sheriff’s deputies arrived (at the scene of the wreck), and they already knew it was a murder,” the Clarion-Ledger quoted Talley as saying.
McMillian’s friends and campaign supporters said he was considered a viable candidate to become the first openly gay elected official in Mississippi. He was one of four candidates running in the May 7 Democratic primary for mayor in the majority Democratic city of Clarksdale.
With no Republican running in the election, the winner of the primary was expected to easily win the general election on June 4.