Family members and community leaders are demanding answers and a new investigation after a Black man was found dead by hanging in Florida last week—despite authorities stressing they have “exhausted all leads” in the case deemed a suicide.
The Orlando Police Department says Nevan Baker, 22, was found dead by hanging from a tree in George Barker Park just after 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 5. Though authorities were quick to label the tragedy a suicide, family and community leaders have pushed for a closer investigation, fearing that Baker’s death mirrors a national spate of mysterious hanging deaths as racial tensions continue to rise in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
“We’re not saying mental health isn’t real. We’re not saying suicides do not happen,” community activist Miles Mulrain Jr. said at Sunday sunset memorial service for Baker, the Orlando Sentinel reported. “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.”
Another family friend, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Daily Beast that the 22-year-old’s relatives do not believe his death was a suicide and are demanding another—and more thorough—investigation into whether foul play or another individual was involved. A spokesperson for the Orlando Police Department, however, told The Daily Beast that after “exhausting all leads,” the investigation concluded Baker’s death was a “tragic suicide.”
“We want the police to reopen the case and show us whether there is any video of Nevan’s final moments,” the family friend said, adding that Baker never expressed any indications of suicidal thoughts. “He wouldn’t just kill himself. We want justice and demand answers.”
According to an Orlando Police Department case report, officers responded to a call that a man was hanging from a tree at George Barker Park early on Oct. 5. At the scene, officers tried to help Baker, one grabbing him “by the lower half,” while his two colleagues cut a white rope to bring him down to the ground. The report states that once Baker was on the ground, officers were not able to find a pulse. Authorities later said the investigation found no “evidence of foul play or any kind of physical struggle.”
While authorities at the medical examiner’s office have ruled Baker’s death a suicide, his mother, Sharhonda James, told the Orlando Sentinel she noticed injuries on her son’s nose, forehead, and jaw when she identified him at the morgue. James added that she has requested the police show her photos and videos from the scene.
“My son didn’t hang himself. I know my child,” James told the Sentinel. “We’re not going to let this go. The community is not going to let this go.”
The incident has caught the attention of Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney who is representing the families of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and is involved in other cases that have reignited nationwide protests against police brutality and racism. In a Sunday tweet, Crump stressed that Baker’s “hands were tied, teeth missing, and face bruised,” before demanding “transparency and a comprehensive investigation so we know exactly what happened!”
Crump’s demands were also echoed at a memorial service Sunday at Barker Park, where dozens of people gathered at sunset to light candles and talk about the 22-year-old who had aspirations of becoming an electrician. The Orlando Police Department, however, maintains the tragic incident was thoroughly investigated—and correctly ruled a suicide.
“We have seen social-media posts regarding a man who was found deceased in Barker Park. This is a tragic case of suicide, and it is difficult for investigators to discuss details publicly, out of respect for the victim’s privacy, and that of his family,” police said in a statement. "The medical examiner also investigated and ruled the cause of death as a 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.”
Baker’s death comes after a slew of hanging deaths over the summer, including Robert Fuller, the 24-year-old found hanging from a tree on June 10 in a park near Palmdale City Hall in Southern California. Authorities immediately deemed it a suicide and city officials attributed it to the emotional despair caused by the coronavirus pandemic—though alarmed residents and family members questioned the hasty conclusion.
The Department of Justice and the FBI are also reviewing Fuller’s death after Los Angeles County officials walked back their original statements about the case. Jonathan Lucas, the chief medical examiner-coroner, told reporters in July that Fuller’s death was listed as a suicide after his office found no immediate indications of homicide.
“Initially, there wasn’t any evidence or information that lead us to believe that there was anything other than a suicide,” Lucas said. “We felt better that we should look into it a little bit more deeply and carefully, just considering all the circumstances at play.”
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.