In a press conference on Monday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and California Attorney General’s office announced they will takeover investigations of two Black men who were separately found dead hanging from trees. The men’s deaths have gained national media attention as the world enters its fourth week of protests against police violence and racism. Despite initial reports that there was no foul play in either deaths, allies and families of the deceased fear that both cases may be linked to hate crimes — and that the likeness of these to lynchings cannot be a coincidence.
Robert Fuller, 24, was found hanging from a tree in a square across from City Hall in Palmdale, CA on Wednesday. According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Fuller’s death was described as “an alleged death by suicide.” The city of Palmdale released a statement attributing the death to the strain of the coronavirus. “Sadly, it is not the first such incident since the COVID-19 pandemic began,” reads the statement. “The city remains committed to addressing mental health issues during these difficult times. We are in this together.”
But his family, alongside protesters who came together in a rally on Saturday, demanded more answers. “Everything that they’ve been telling us has not been right,” Fuller’s sister, Diamond Alexander, said in a video of the rally posted on Twitter. “We’ve been hearing one thing. Then we hear another. And we just want to know the truth. My brother was not suicidal. He wasn’t.”
Fuller’s autopsy was conducted on Friday; however, according to a local report from KABC, the cause of death has been deferred. Over the weekend, the city of Palmdale supported the call for an independent investigation and autopsy in a second statement. “The City of Palmdale is joining the family and the community’s call for justice, and we do support a full investigation into his death,” reads the statement. “We will settle for nothing less than a thorough accounting of this matter.”
Fuller's death comes less than two weeks after another California man was found in a tree as well. On Monday, the Department of Justice and the FBI announced they will be reviewing another case from 10 days earlier in San Bernardino County, though they did not clarify any connection between the two. On May 31, 38-year-old Malcolm Harsch was found outside a library in Victorville, CA, about 50 miles from Palmdale. Harsch’s family has also spoken out and expressed concern that his passing will be ruled as a suicide, according to the New York Times.
“Amidst the current racial tension and following the protesting the night prior to his body being discovered we were truly troubled to learn of his passing particularly of how his body was discovered,” Harsch’s family told the Victor Valley News. “He is an African-American man whose body was found hanging from a tree!” His family expressed doubt that his death could be the result of suicide saying that he had very recent conversations with his children about seeing them soon.
According to the NYT, Harsch’s relatives were informed that the coroner’s office completed Harsch’s autopsy, but they were not given a cause of death. “We are really just trying to get more answers as to what happened,” Harmonie Harsch, his sister, told the NYT on Sunday. “My brother was so loving, not only to his family but even strangers. It is not like him.”
The comparison of both Harsch and Fuller's deaths to lynchings is inescapable, advocates say, and a horrifying reality for investigators. Currently, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act is making its way through the Senate. It passed in the House this year by a vote of 410 to 4 and is backed by 99 senators. Should it pass, the Act would classify lynching – defined as a conspiracy by two or more people to cause bodily harm in connection with a hate crime – as a federal crime that carries penalties up to life in prison if convicted.
Republican Senator Rand Paul is reportedly holding up the piece of legislation from passing over definitions of what constitutes bodily harm and whether it should be reworded as "severe bodily harm." But now, perhaps more than ever, the legislation is necessary. As the FBI continues to look into both ongoing cases, petitions continue to circulate demanding a thorough investigation into Fuller and Harsch’s deaths — and refuse to allow their stories to be erased.
Refinery29 reached out to the California Department of Justice for comment. We will update this story as we know more.