A Black man was found hanging from a tree in Orlando, Fla., on Oct. 5. The police officers who found him said they saw no signs of a struggle, and a medical examiner ruled the man’s death a suicide. But family and friends of the man are unconvinced that the official report is true, and some are saying they noticed physical injuries to his face when viewing his body. Now, they are demanding more answers than they’ve been given.
WESH 2 reports that 22-year-old Nevan Baker was found by police around 3 a.m. last Monday in Orlando’s Barker Park, according to a case report by the Orlando Police Department.
Officers at the scene tried to help Baker, according to the report. One officer grabbed Baker “by the lower half” while the other two cut a white rope in order to get Baker on the ground. Officers were not able to find a pulse once he was on the ground, police said in the report.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Baker’s family, along with friends and community activists, are demanding that the OPD release any photos and video evidence the department has that was taken at or near the scene of the hanging.
Baker’s mother Sharhonda James said that when she viewed her son’s body at the morgue, she noticed injuries to his face. Those injuries include “swelling on his nose, bumps on his forehead and a misaligned jaw.” the Sentinel reports.
Civil attorney Ben Crump—who is calling for further investigation into Baker’s death, according to USA Today—tweeted Sunday that the police “quickly ruled his death a suicide but now we learn his hands were tied, teeth missing and face bruised.”
“We’re not going to let this go; the community is not going to let this go,” James told the Sentinel.
Authorities are standing by the official report that says Baker committed suicide.
“We have seen social media posts regarding a man who was found deceased in Barker Park,” the OPD said in a statement. “This is a tragic case of suicide, and it is difficult for investigators to discuss details publicly, out of respect to the victim’s privacy, and that of his family.”
“Officers have exhausted all leads and, at this time, there is no evidence of foul play or any kind of physical struggle,” the statement continues. “The medical examiner also investigated and ruled the cause of death as suicide. Our detectives continue to support the victim’s family where they can. We are keeping the victim, his family, and friends in our thoughts during this difficult time.”
The OPD’s statement doesn’t include any mention or explanation for the damage to Baker’s face that James said she saw.
If the alleged injuries to Baker’s face weren’t enough, Black people will always be understandably suspicious when a Black person is found hanging from a tree. Community activist Miles Mulrain Jr. explained this during a Sunday vigil at Barker Park, according to the Sentinel.
“We’re not saying mental health isn’t real. We’re not saying suicides do not happen,” Mulrain said. “We’re saying the issue is that you cannot take it lightly when a Black person is hanging from a tree. You cannot rule it as a suicide immediately without a thorough investigation.”
Earlier this year, the bodies of two Black men, 24-year-old Robert L. Fuller and 38-year-old Malcolm Harsch, were found hanging from trees in California within weeks of each other. Both deaths were ultimately ruled suicides and in both cases, the men’s family members expressed disbelief that they would kill themselves, and said they were suspicious of how the investigation was handled.
Baker’s family appears to feel no differently. According to the Sentinel, Baker’s grandmother, Francine James, called her grandson a “gentle soul” and said that he helped her around the house and that they lived about a mile away from where he was found hanging.
“He wouldn’t kill himself,” she said.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-TALK (8255).