On Monday, law enforcement officials in California announced further investigation into the deaths of Robert Fuller and Malcolm Harsch.
Fuller, 24, was found hanged from a tree in a park about a block from Palmdale City Hall last Wednesday. Harsch, 37, was discovered 10 days earlier on May 31, hanged from a tree in Victorville, which lies just 50 miles east of Palmdale.
Officials were quick to declare the two deaths apparent suicides with no evidence of foul play, prompting national outrage.
On June 13, protesters marched with signs reading “Justice for Robert Fuller” from Poncitlán Square where Fuller’s body was found to the sheriff’s station to demand an investigation into Fuller’s death. Two Change.org petitions demanding “full” and “thorough” investigations into Fuller’s death had each garnered nearly 300,000 signatures by Tuesday morning.
“This was not a case of suicide but murder,” Katlyn Velliquette wrote in the petition she launched four days ago.
Dr. Jonathan Lucas, the county's chief medical examiner, said the preliminary determination of death was based on a lack of evidence pointing to foul play.
In a statement, the city of Palmdale seemd to attribute Fuller's death to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Sadly, it is not the first such incident since the COVID-19 pandemic began," the city said according to reporting from CNN. "The city remains committed to addressing mental health issues during these difficult times. We are in this together."
According to The New York Times, the department has not yet completed an autopsy.
At a news briefing on Friday, Palmdale City Manager J.J. Murphy said, “Maybe we should have said it was an ‘alleged suicide,’” before he asked the audience if they would “stop talking about lynchings.”
The African American Policy Forum, the New York based think tank behind the #SayHerName and #BlackGirlsMatter campaigns, responded by tweeting a photo of a flag reading “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY,” that flew from the NAACP’s headquarters in New York City between 1920 and 1938.
“It’s sad and infuriating that the flag is still relevant today,” they wrote. “Black people remain subject to racist violence, perpetrated by both state and private vigilantes.”
This flag flew from the NAACP's headquarters in NYC from 1920 until 1938. It's sad and infuriating that the flag is still relevant today.— African American Policy Forum (@AAPolicyForum) June 14, 2020
Black people remain subject to racist violence, perpetrated by both the state and private vigilantes. #RobertFuller #MalcolmHarsch pic.twitter.com/SVjybVS7dr
They were also quick to call out news coverage of Fuller and Harsch’s deaths, writing, “It’s disturbing the number of news articles right now that have ‘police say they suspect suicide’ as their subheading.”
It’s not the first time that news outlets have been criticized for coverage in recent weeks. Readers were quick to note the use of passive and active voice used by outlets when describing incidents of police brutality during the ongoing protests.
“Contortions to avoid naming police as active agents are now systemic in journalism,” tweeted Anthony Oliveira in response to a now viral tweet calling out The New York Times coverage of the May 30 protests.
this tweet should probably go in textbooks: 3 sentences, laid back to back, by the same publication— Anthony Oliveira (@meakoopa) May 31, 2020
and ask students to note which use the active and which the passive voice https://t.co/qoW4YCzw8m
On Monday, the Houston Chronicle ran a story with the headline, “Man found dead in apparent suicide outside store in Shady Acres, police say.”
The man, believed to be Latino, was found hanged in the Shady Acres community and was initially misidentified as a black man by a freelance Huffington Post reporter in a viral tweet.
As a result of public pressure, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said that they will work with investigators from the California attorney general’s office to complete investigations into the deaths of Fuller and Harsch. The FBI will also monitor the investigation.
Villanueva said that his office has received an onslaught of emails and phone calls.
Both Fuller and Harsch’s families believe that the men did not die from suicide.
“My brother was so loving, not only to his family but even strangers,” Harmonie Harsch, Malcolm Harsch’s sister told The New York Times. “It is not like him.”
At a rally in Palmdale, Robert Fuller’s sister, Diamond Alexander, said her brother “was not suicidal.”
Alexander has launched a GoFundMe fundraiser in memorial of her brother. As of Tuesday, more than 10,000 people had contributed more than $200,000 to support the family and cover funeral costs.
Reuters contributed to this reporting.