WASHINGTON -- The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is investigating the hanging deaths of 47 inmates in Mississippi jails, an agency spokeswoman said yesterday..
"We're gathering information -- including the testimony from earlier hearings -- to determine what would be the appropriate federal action," said Obern Rainey. She said the investigation was being conducted by the criminal section of the Civil Rights Division, but she would not speculate on whether federal indictments might be sought.
The probe was ordered by Attorney General Janet Reno.
"How could that many people die?" the attorney general asked in an interview Tuesday. She directed federal investigators to "try to get to the bottom of it."
The six-year string of suspicious deaths came to national attention last August with the hanging of 18-year-old Andre Jones in a jail cell in Simpson County, Miss.
Local officials called the death a suicide and federal officials could not prove otherwise, but doubts lingered. He was the 42nd such jail cell death since 1987, and the deaths now total 47.
At her confirmation hearings, Ms. Reno was asked by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, an Ohio Democrat, to continue the investigation.
"I am aware the department looked into the circumstances of Jones's death and concluded there was not enough evidence to justify prosecution," said Mr. Metzenbaum. "I am not satisfied. I am also aware of the history of race relations in this country. I am also aware of Mississippi's record."
About half of the dead inmates were black.
Meeting with reporters Tuesday, the attorney general said she wanted the cases revisited to determine "whether there is any evidence of criminal activity that should be further pursued."
Even if no wrongdoing is found, she said, the investigators should find out "if there is any pattern to this tragic number of deaths, to see what could be done to prevent something like that in the future."
She suggested better internal surveillance of inmates or redesign of the jails might be needed.
Ms. Rainey said she could not comment on the investigation or even give the range of possible federal actions.