By Marti Maguire
RALEIGH, N.C. (Reuters) - The FBI will investigate the hanging death of a black teenager in a small North Carolina town, the agency said on Friday, after his family questioned the finding by local authorities that it was a suicide.
The body of Lennon Lacy, 17, was found hanging from a swing set in a mobile home park in Bladenboro, a town with a population of about 1,700 located roughly 150 miles (240 km) southeast of Charlotte.
Shelley Lynch, a Charlotte-based spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, confirmed the agency was reviewing the case at the request of the U.S. Attorney's office in Raleigh.
The probe comes amid heated debate on race in the United States. Grand jury decisions to not indict white police officers who killed unarmed black males in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, have prompted street protests across the country in recent weeks.
The family and the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP had been pushing for the probe, citing concerns about the handling of the case and suspicions that the teen might have been murdered.
Reverend William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, said in a statement that he hopes the FBI will be able to "crack the small-town code" of the mostly-white community as it looks into the case.
Speaking to Reuters, he said that Lacy's relationship with an older white woman was well known in the community, and that his body was found in a section of town that blacks had in years past known to avoid for fear of violence.
The high school football player's mother said she did not think her son, a shy teenager, would end his life "in such an exposed space, hanging from a swing set in plain view" of several trailer homes.
"We don't know what happened to my son three months ago, and suicide is still possible. But there are so many unanswered questions that I can’t help but ask: Was he killed? Was my son lynched?" Claudia Lacy was quoted as saying in a commentary published on Friday in the U.S. edition of The Guardian newspaper.
The family and the NAACP have questioned why during a four-day investigation, local police never came to their house to search his room nor check his cell phone for clues about what may have happened on Aug. 29, when he was killed.
They also say Lacy's body was found with a pair of shoes on his feet that were two sizes too small.
Barber said he suspects police used a statement given by Lacy's mother that the teen was "depressed" over the recent death of his uncle to provide a motive for his committing suicide. Lacy's mother had merely meant that he was in mourning, Barber said.
All the family wants is for the federal inquiry to properly investigate what happened, Barber said.
"The family can handle if it was a suicide," he said. "It could also be a lynching."
The NAACP will hold a rally on Saturday in Bladenboro to honor Lacy's memory and bring attention to the case.
Bladen County District Attorney Jon David said on Friday that the FBI’s involvement should not be taken as a sign that the local investigation was deficient.
"The death of a child is something that deserves the full attention of my office and law enforcement," he said. "That has occurred and will continue to occur."
(Additinal reporting by David Adams in Miami; Writing by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Alan Crosby, Bernard Orr)