A black man is found hanged in Florida: suicide or first lynching in two decades?

Ever since the body of Feraris Golden was found hanging from a tree in his grandmother's garden, the small Florida community in which he lived and died has been split.

Was it a simple suicide or was it something far more sinister - a lynching?

Yesterday that debate - on which the community has been divided largely along racial lines - moved to a coroner's inquest investigating the circumstances surrounding Mr Golden's death. It is also being held to satisfy those who fear that their community has been struck by a crime most believed belonged to a different era and that Mr Golden - a black man - was murdered because he was dating the daughter of a white policeman.

"The purpose is to resolve the ugly rumours surrounding the death of [Mr] Golden and address what evidence there is that points to the cause of death and whether there was a lynching," wrote Linda Johnson, president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in a letter to the local authorities of Belle Glade, Florida, requesting the inquest. "We're not saying it's a homicide. We're not saying it's a suicide. We just think there are some questions that need to be answered."

A coroner's inquest has not been held in the county for almost 20 years - most suspicious deaths are investigated by a grand jury - but such has been the outcry that the State Attorney, Barry Krischer, also supported the move. At the conclusion of the two-day hearing, the coroner, circuit judge Harold Cohen, is expected to give a non-binding judgment. This could force the police, who believe Mr Golden committed suicide, to reopen the inquiry.

Since Mr Golden's body was found hanging in a noose fashioned from a sheet from a schefflera tree on 28 May there have been two versions of events surrounding his death. His mother, Bernice Golden, says when she discovered the body, her son's hands were bound behind his back. She called her husband, Henry Drummer, to try and take the body down. "He was cold as ice and stiff," Mr Drummer told The Palm Beach Post. "There's no way he could have done this to himself. I'll just come out and say it - I think he was lynched."

Post-mortem tests revealed that Mr Golden had alcohol equivalent to three times the legal driving limit in his bloodstream. There were also traces of cocaine. There was no chair or ladder and Mrs Golden says it would have been impossible for her son to have climbed the tree. "He was drunk up there, and it was raining," she said. "How's he gonna do that?"

The police know just how difficult it would have been. Video footage taken from a camera fitted in a police patrol car shows an officer climbing into the tree to untie the body. But that same footage also reportedly shows Mr Golden's hands lying by his sides and not tied.

Furthermore, the body showed no signs of trauma or struggle apart from the marks from the noose. "It's a small town and when those things happen, rumours fly," said Michael Miller, a police captain.

The Southern Poverty Law Centre said there has not been a documented lynching for more than 20 years. "We've seen a number of these cases where claims have been made and have not been substantiated," said a spokesman, Mark Potok. "I would simply caution people to be very careful if they assume lynching or even murder until the facts are in."

But such reasoning appears to have little impact in Belle Glade, a depressed farming community with a population of about 15,000 - half white, half black - 50 miles inland from Palm Beach. The black unemployment rate of 15 per cent is seven times that for whites.

"I can't believe he would do this. He had everything to live for," said Mustafa Ali, the owner of a grocery store where Mr Golden bought some beer shortly before his death. "The police want this to be a suicide. If he was murdered, this town would blow up. These people would be rioting in the streets."

People whisper that Mr Golden was dating Judi Stambaugh, the daughter of a white police officer, Curtis Stambaugh. She denies reports of an affair but says she had previously dated black men. Perhaps tellingly - unlike her father - Ms Stambaugh thinks Mr Golden was murdered. She said: "I'm probably one of the few white people who do believe that."

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