Two Suspicious Deaths by Hangings of Black Men in California

Jessica S. Henry
4 min readJun 16, 2020

Robert Fuller, a twenty-four-year old black man, was found on June 10th, hanging from a tree near City Hall in Palmdale, California. With very little investigation, the local police quickly declared his death to be an apparent suicide, a response that Fuller’s family and friends flatly disputed. There was little evidence to support such a conclusion, they argued, and denied that Fuller was suicidal.

Josie Huang/AP

Just two weeks earlier, on May 31st, some 50 miles east of Palmdale, another black man, Malcolm Harsch, was found hanging from a tree outside the city public library. As with Fuller, the local police were quick to label Harsch’s death a suicide.

Harsch’s family, most of whom live in Ohio, expressed skepticism that his death was a suicide. They say Harsch had just spoken with his children and was looking forward to seeing them. And they found it odd that the police said no foul play was suspected when blood was allegedly found on his shirt.

The quick label of suicide is not standard policing procedure.

Police are trained to investigate all deaths as suspicious unless and until an investigation proves others. As one leading police manual explains: “[a]ll death inquiries should be conducted as homicide investigations until the facts prove differently. The resolution of the mode of death as Suicide is based on a series of factors which eliminate Homicide, Accident and Natural Causes of death.” In other words, the conclusion that a death was by suicide should only occur once other causes of death are ruled out. In these cases, where both families denied the men were suicidal and where no note or other indications of suicide were evident, why would the police so quickly dismiss other possible explanations?

In a time when millions of people have taken to the streets to demand that black lives be valued and seen, and in an area with more than its fair share of racist allegations, why were the police so dismissive of these unusual hanging deaths in public arenas?

Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press

The Message of a Hanged Black Body

Jessica S. Henry

Criminal Justice Reform/Prof/Fmr public defender. Blog@ au:Smoke but No Fire: Convicting the Innocent of Crimes that Never Happened