DOJ say no evidence death of N.C. prep football player was homicide

The Death Of Lennon Lacy (6:59)

When a 17-year-old high school football player was found dead, hanging from a swing set last August, news reports called it a "lynching." "Outside the Lines" examines the death of Lennon Lacy and learns there is much more to this story. (6:59)

The U.S. Department of Justice has concluded that there is no evidence to prove a 17-year-old North Carolina high school football player who was found hanged near his home in August 2014 was murdered, affirming the conclusion of local police who came under public scrutiny for what the teen's family had called a hasty and incomplete investigation.

Lennon Lacy, who would have graduated from West Bladen High School last Saturday, was found hanged from a swing set not far from his home on Aug. 29, 2014.

The finding announced Thursday by the Justice Department closes a case that had placed a rural community of 1,750 residents in the national spotlight amid questions about race and justice in its small town.

In a two-hour meeting Thursday, Paige Fitzgerald, the deputy chief of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division's Criminal Section, showed Lacy's mother, Claudia, photos and other evidence taken at the scene that local law enforcement had not previously provided to the family. While not erasing the family's doubts, the photos showed physical evidence that was consistent with the medical examiner's original finding of asphyxiation by suicide.

In a statement, the NAACP said the Lacy family was still "considering the evidence" and would comment at a later date.

Lacy's body was found the morning before his debut as a junior linebacker with the West Bladen Knights. Local police investigated and quickly labeled his death a suicide, a conclusion family and friends swiftly criticized. Claudia Lacy said her son was looking forward to his debut at linebacker and scoffed at the notion that he had become depressed after attending a family funeral, as police had suggested. A private forensic pathologist hired by the NAACP to review the case added skepticism.

On Dec. 12, 2014, in a nod to the increasing national attention, the FBI announced a review of the case.

Minutes after Thursday's meeting ended, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Raleigh, North Carolina, issued a statement, saying in part, "After a careful and thorough review by a team of experienced federal prosecutors and FBI agents, the Justice Department found no evidence to suggest that Lacy's death was a homicide. Accordingly, the investigation into this incident has been closed."

Without access to the evidence that the Lacy family was shown Thursday, the NAACP's pathologist had noted that Lennon stood 5-foot-9, and there was nothing discovered by the swing that he could have used to step up into the 6-foot noose himself. Florida-based doctor Christina Roberts also pointed out that the Bladenboro police had failed to seal off the scene for more than six hours, losing a chance to collect evidence, and that a new pair of Air Jordan sneakers that Lacy had just bought were missing. (He was found instead wearing ill-fitting sneakers that didn't have laces.)

Federal investigators did not resolve the issue of the sneakers. But according to a source who was present at Thursday's meeting, one photo showed that the noose, which was made out of two belts fastened together, hung down lower than previously thought and could have been reached by the teenager alone.

In a march that drew hundreds of protesters to the streets of Bladenboro in 2014, Rev. William Barber, leader of the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP, recalled the darkest days of the segregated South when he said, "We have reason, both empirically, both historically, to be suspicious and to demand a federal investigation."

Outside the Lines aired a subsequent story on Lacy's death, reporting a tangled web of relationships that added to a list of questions surrounding his death. Among those interviewed were people involved with Lacy who said that neighbors didn't like the fact he was involved with an older, white woman. Another teen had also threatened once to "kill and hang" Lacy after a dispute over a cell phone.

Lacy's family was told that the Justice Department would consider re-opening the case if new evidence is discovered.