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Answers Demanded After Black Man In California Found Hanging From Tree

NOEL KING, HOST:

This next story is disturbing. And if you prefer not to hear it, please, go ahead and turn your radio off for the next 2 1/2 minutes. In the past few weeks, the bodies of two black men have been found hanging from trees in Southern California. Police have ruled each death a suicide. The men's families, though, are not convinced. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: About 50 miles and 10 days separate the deaths of Robert Fuller and Malcolm Harsch. Both black men were found dead hanging from a tree. In both cases, police are investigating but believe both men took their own lives. Around 3 a.m. last Wednesday, Fuller's body was found near city hall in Palmdale, a city of 150,000 about an hour north of Los Angeles. In a statement, the LA County Sheriff's Department, which serves Palmdale, said they believe it was suicide. But relatives and protesters are demanding answers about Fuller's death.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Say his name.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Robert Fuller.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Say his name.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Robert Fuller.

WESTERVELT: Several hundred people protested this weekend near the site of the 24 year old's death. Laurielle Stewart says it must be investigated as a possible hate crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAURIELLE STEWART: How do you suggest suicide without a full investigation, without a autopsy? For me, I want to say lynching. If you could suggest suicide, I could suggest a lynching.

WESTERVELT: Fuller's sister, Diamond Alexander, remembered her brother while standing near the tree where his body was found.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIAMOND ALEXANDER: Robert was a good little brother to us. And it's like everything that they've been telling us has not been right. And we just want to know the truth.

WESTERVELT: While the sheriff's office investigates, an LA County supervisor has now joined protesters in calling for California's attorney general to conduct an independent probe. And about an hour's drive east of Palmdale, in Victorville, firefighters found 38-year-old Malcolm Harsch hanging from a tree on May 31 not far from a public library. The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Office told a local paper there were no signs of foul play or a struggle.

But in a statement, the family, which is in Ohio, say they find it hard to believe Harsch killed himself. They said he didn't seem depressed and had talked recently with his kids about seeing them soon. The family wrote, there are many ways to die. But considering the current racial tension, a black man hanging himself from a tree definitely doesn't sit well with us right now. We want justice, the family added, not comfortable excuses.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "UNTIL TOMORROW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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