Created on Wednesday, 24 April 2013 Written by JULIE CARR SMYTH, Associated Press and
COLUMBUS — Almost seven years after a black teenager died in a hanging at an Ohio church camp, authorities in the rural county where it happened have granted a family lawyer's request to review a coroner's ruling of suicide.
Logan County Prosecutor William T. Goslee said in an email sent Tuesday that he plans to submit writing samples to a state crime lab from the boy, James McCoy III, and from a witness who recently invoked the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination in an ongoing wrongful death suit.
The lawyer representing McCoy's mother, Tonya Amoako-Okyere, cited the county's reconsideration in a request Monday to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, asking federal authorities also to reconsider the case it had closed in 2007.
Amoako-Okyere alleges her son died as a result of an asphyxiation prank little better than a lynching played on the boy by his white friends as a birthday prank. She seeks more than $5 million in damages.
In his letter to the U.S. Justice Department, attorney Cliff Arnebeck cited the witness's recent refusal to answer questions as a pivotal development in the case.
"As a consequence of this dramatic change on the part of the sole witness to this as a suicide, the Logan County Sheriff (Andrew J. Smith) has reopened his investigation of this matter," Arnebeck wrote. "We request that the Justice Department do so as well."
Mr. Goslee said Wednesday the email was part of his communication with Mr. Arnebeck, from whom local investigators would like to receive known writing samples from the victim.
If the note indeed is not his, the prosecutor said, then the investigation would move forward.
Goslee said in his email that Arnebeck "grossly misstated" the reason Logan County was reopening the case. He said it had nothing to do with the witness's decision to take the Fifth.
"I do not see his assertion of the Fifth Amendment as dramatic in the least, nor do I know of any evidence that would suggest that Mr. McCoy fell victim to a choking game," Goslee wrote.
The lawsuit alleges four campers gave false statements to authorities after the incident, leading officials to believe McCoy had been depressed and suicidal, and later created false writings to back up their story.
Goslee said the county wants to do a detailed analysis of handwriting samples viewed by witnesses who say the writings were not McCoy's to determine if they are "in fact not his."
Barry Fagel, a Cincinnati-based attorney for the witness, told Sheriff Smith in a March 28 letter that he urged his client to take the Fifth "because Mr. Arnebeck was accusing (him) of being involved in the death of James McCoy." He said it's a right afforded under the U.S. Constitution and doesn't in any way imply fault or guilt.
News reports at the time said authorities were told McCoy had inexplicably wandered off from the group and that his friends were confused and shocked by his death. A coroner's report called the death a suicide.
The camp is near Bellefontaine.