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  • Victoria A. Brownworth

What Killed Mikayla Miller?

June 10, 2021 Philadelphia Gay News

Mikayla Miller didn’t live to see Pride.

The 16-year-old gender nonconforming Black lesbian was found on April 18 tied to a tree in the woods near her home in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, a suburban town outside Boston, with a belt around her neck.

The medical examiner found that Miller died of asphyxia by hanging, and ruled her death a suicide, according to a copy of her death certificate released May 19.

But was it suicide, or was that conclusion drawn before any investigation into the teen’s death was conducted?

Miller’s mother, Calvina Strothers, wants to know what killed her smart, honor-student daughter, who was an aspiring journalist who wanted to attend college.

“We were very close. We did everything together. She was a kindhearted, kind soul, loving, caring, altruistic 16-year-old girl,” Strothers said of Mikayla. “She loved everyone. She tried to find the goodness in everyone, and she was someone that I relied on.”

Strothers disagrees with the state medical examiner’s conclusion and wants an independent investigation into her daughter’s suspicious death — an investigation she says would have been conducted had her daughter been white and not LGBTQ.

Strothers thinks her daughter was lynched and has secured noted attorney Ben Crump to take her case. Crump is well known for handling the cases of Black families that have lost a loved one to police or vigilante violence, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

At a recent press conference reported by Boston NPR station WBUR, Strother’s said the tree wasn’t sturdy enough to hold Miller’s weight and the belt didn’t belong to Miller or her mother. Miller’s family said Miller and several other teenagers — including Miller’s ex-girlfriend — were involved in a fight at Miller’s apartment complex the night before she was found dead.

“Someone did this to my daughter,” said Strothers, who believes her daughter was murdered. Police told her the morning her daughter’s body was found, before any investigation, that Miller died by suicide.

“The only thing I want out of all of this is to find the truth,” Strothers said. “The conclusion they made [in the death certificate] is the conclusion they made the first day they walked into my house. But I know the truth and it’s not what they say.”

Mikayla Miller’s death should have been national news when her body was found. A Black teen hanging from a tree in a largely white area certainly seems suspicious. But police were quick to dismiss Miller’s highly suspicious death and the circumstances around it in yet another example of law enforcement failing to investigate the death of a Black victim of obvious violence.

Strothers has been calling for accountability, particularly from Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan. A family spokesperson, activist Monica Cannon-Grant of Violence in Boston Inc., said the family has called for an independent investigation and autopsy.

The district attorney’s office said May 7 that the case remains open but did not give PGN further comment.

At a rally and vigil for Mikayla Miller, her mother spoke to the group, saying, “I don’t want to be a vigilante in this. I don’t want to have to spend all day on the phone getting and passing along evidence in order for justice to be served.”

Strothers said: “What I want is for the criminal justice system to work.”

Notable politicians have voiced their own concerns about Miller and the quick assessment and dismissal of her death, among them two staunch LGBTQ allies, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who represents the nearby Seventh District, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Pressley said in a statement: “With far too many unanswered questions about how Miller died, we must have a full, transparent, and independent investigation into her death.”

Pressley’s notes, “The investigation will help ensure accountability and closure for Mikayla’s family and allow her loved ones and community to begin to heal.”

Warren said in a statement that “Mikayla Miller’s death was a tragedy. She and all of our LGBTQ youth and youth of color deserve to be safe. We owe her family peace in knowing that everything possible was done to find answers, including a thorough and transparent investigation into the circumstances of her death.”

What are those circumstances?

Cannon-Grant said a Massachusetts State Police sergeant told Miller’s mother April 18 that Miller had killed herself. The family asserts that an officer advised Strothers not to go to the press because then Miller’s sexual orientation would become public knowledge.

But the night before Miller’s body was found, there had been a fight at the apartment complex where she lived involving several teens, among them a girl with whom Miller had recently broken off a relationship.

According to an affidavit reviewed by Boston’s NBC affiliate, WBTS, a detective found Miller’s body hanging from a tree branch, suspended by a black leather belt around her neck. The affidavit said the detective “saw no wounds or bleeding on her body” and the scene “appeared to be undisturbed.” The leaves on the ground “appeared to be matted and heavily traveled,” although he noted Miller was found on “a heavily traveled town path” and the initial report of Miller’s death had been from a jogger who called it in as the body of a man hanging from a tree.

Miller’s family contends that police did not even log the fight that occurred the night before to which police were called after Miller’s mother says she was “jumped” and punched and where Miller sustained a bloodied lip.

Nor did police log in finding Miller’s body.

A log tweeted by the Hopkinton Police Department shows nothing about a dead Black teen found in the woods, nor anything about the fight the previous night.

In a May 4 press conference, Ryan addressed why her office was so quick to dismiss Miller’s death as anything but suicide. “Very often, as everyone knows, things may appear to be one thing, and then we learn more information.”

She added, “Often things come to light as we proceed further in this case.”

Ryan’s description of Miller at that press conference begs the question of why more investigation has yet to be done. Ryan said Miller was “a cherished daughter, a gifted student, a talented athlete, and a loyal friend.”

But although Ryan asserted more investigation would be done “with due speed,” there is no update a full month later. While the case remains open, without Strothers hiring the high-profile Crump, would anyone outside Boston even know about Mikayla Miller?

Mikayla Miller’s death and her assault the night before were treated casually and dismissively by police. Conclusions were made instantaneously without investigation and have framed the entire case. The DA’s office contends racism and homophobia have had no bearing on the case, but the facts say otherwise.

What killed the Black, queer honor student and athlete, Mikayla Miller, who was known for her generous spirit? And why, weeks after her death, are there still no answers?

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