The family and neighbors of Robert “Jose” McNair, 46, the first cousin of Tennessee Titan star quarterback Steve McNair, remain in shock after finding his lifeless body suspended from a tree. His feet were firmly on the ground in his front yard at 2701 Overstreet Ave. in the Georgetown section of town. Some driving by mistakenly just thought he was leaning up against the tree.
The White-owned news media in Jackson has either ignored or given scant attention to the unusual scenario of a Black man hanging from a tree in mid-town Jackson, while a string of more than 40 jailhouse and other suspicious lynchings in Mississippi over the past decade remain fresh in the minds of people across the nation.
The death has been declared a suicide by the African-American Hinds County coroner, Sharon Grisham Stewart, pending further investigation. “We are viewing it [McNair’s death] as a self-inflicted ligature,” Stewart says. “The normal routine in such a case is to avoid a lot of media exposure out of respect for the family survivors. In fact, I’m saying now a lot more than I would normally say. We know all the stigmas that have been associated with hangings in Mississippi. And it is out of the norm for a Black male to choose this form of death. But we, as humans, are all subject to the trials and tribulations of life.”
Stewart estimates that when she retrieved the body shortly after 9 a.m. a week ago, McNair had been dead from four to six hours, placing the time of death between 3 and 5 a.m.
But Clint Pierre, McNair’s nephew who lives with the family, says that he and a cousin were awake until about 3:30 a.m. that morning and heard nothing unusual outside. They were on the porch on the side of the house during that time also, he said.
Neighbor Helen Hunt, a retired nursing assistant, said she doesn’t believe McNair’s death was a suicide.
“If Jose was going to hang himself, he would have been suspended above the ground. But his neck wasn’t broken and his feet were on the ground. He sure didn’t hang himself.”
Hunt also places the appearance of McNair’s body at the tree between 6:15 a.m., when her son-in-law left for work, and 7:30 a.m., when a Department of Transportation employee, Willie Benard, and a neighbor, Robert Scott, discovered the suspended body against the tree. Scott was able to take several photographs of the scene before the authorities arrived.
Hunt’s son-in-law had not noticed a body beneath the tree when he had left. Some neighbors speculate that several racial threats have been present in the neighborhood since Muslim Minister Louis Farrakhan’s visit to Jackson in early October.
“He wasn’t suicidal at all,” says Pamela McNair, the deceased’s wife. “None of this is adding up. There are some very important questions that need to be answered.”
His stepson, Jerry Harris, says, “He was too happy to kill himself.” Nearby neighbors all thought highly of McNair, known to them as Jose. He often repaired their cars. But they were most impressed with his positive outlook on life.
Even in his down moments, says stepdaughter Jennifer Green, Jose would tell everybody to put their bad times behind them and to move on to something better.
Both coroner and police, although focused on suicide as the reason for the death, are keeping the investigation open. McNair’s family and close neighbors are demanding more publicity and a more thorough investigation. According to the family, McNair’s wallet was missing. He had been paid the night before his body was discovered beside the tree in his front yard, Ms. McNair says. He was also wearing his co-worker, Robert Lofton’s, jacket, although the night was too warm for extra clothing. Lofton was the last person the family saw with McNair before his death.
The cap he was wearing was placed neatly on the chair, ostensibly the perch from which he jumped. But Ms. McNair said it seemed odd that a footprint was on the chair beneath the cap.
“Either way it goes, I’m no detective, but I know that if someone wants to kill somebody, they can see all kinds of ways to do it on television,” she said. “I’m confused as hell. I know somebody killed my husband. I want to know why.”
EARNEST McBRIDE writes for the Jackson Advocate, where this article originally appeared.