A Sister Fights for Justice for Her Brother 28 Years After Hanging
In 1939 the great songstress Billie Holiday recorded, “Strange Fruit” and the lyrics are compelling:
“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the popular trees”
The song was recorded decades before the death of a handsome, vibrant young African American male living not in the South but rather in an affluent community in Montgomery County. Keith Waddell Warren was a 19 year old man that had been accepted into North Carolina Central University and was to start his college career in the fall but instead was found hanging from a tree on July 31, 1986.
The death was not defined by the coroner as a lynching or murder but rather a suicide. Shockingly, the Montgomery County MD coroner’s office without a criminal investigation or autopsy deemed this young man with a full life ahead of him a suicide based on no credible evidence.
The tragedy of this grisly death is compounded by the events that followed and have lead to a twenty eight year search that has been filled with tears, unanswered questions and a costly financial investment by the family who is committed to a son, a brother and a friend to many. Keith Warren’s mother, Mary Chambers Couey, dedicated her life to finding justice for her son. Her daughter, Sherri Warren, stood with her mother on this road of discovery. Tragically, Mary Couey died suddenly on May 23, 2009 but her commitment to her son lives on through her daughter Sherri.
“My brother was a taken at the very beginning of his bright future. He loved life, loved his family and yes loved his sister. To know that he was alone, hanging from a tree and left there for the world to see continues to haunt me” says his devoted sister. “My mother went to her grave wanting justice for our family and I now have that same fervor to avenge his brutal murder that was covered up.”
Is this a family that just does not want to accept the fact that their loved one took their own life? Well, here are some major points of interest:
- The family was notified of the death about 6 hours after the body was found.
- The lead Detective used information from a third party, unrelated, unknown source to determine Keith Warren’s death a suicide.
- No one with a medical background examined Keith Warren’s body prior to being released to the funeral home chosen by the lead detective.
- The body was immediately taken to a funeral home for embalming, no criminal investigation or autopsy was performed. The family was not informed prior to the embalming.
- The clothing that he was wearing when found was not his own.
- The tree from which Keith Warren was hanged was cut down quickly and taken into “evidence” but cannot be found.
- There was no evidence of a criminal investigation, no yellow tape, no questioning of witnesses or other steps to evaluate if a crime had occurred.
There are many more instances of questionable behavior on the part of the police department and the coroner’s office.
“It just does not add up, and more importantly I question why there was a rush to write “suicide” on the death certificate and an unwillingness to investigate a 19 year old African American male found lynched in Montgomery County, Maryland,” says Sherri, his sister.
The facts do not add up and the family engaged the services of a renowned forensic pathologist, Isidore Mihalkis, MD 7 years after Keith Warren’s murder. The body was exhumed and the findings were startling. “Toxicological findings are incompatible with the autopsy findings and in fact do not support a hanging diagnosis” stated Dr. Mihalkis. Specifically on the toxicology he found abnormal amounts of tricholormethane a solvent found in paints and lacquers in high levels in the body. The pathologist, based on the high levels of the chemicals in his body and the mental confusion that would have resulted, went even further and stated,
“I do not believe that he would have the ability to hang himself, and for that matter he would not have had the ability to make the decision about hanging himself.”
In this doctor’s expert opinion, this death must be investigated as a homicide.
A mother’s love, a sister’s commitment and a 19 year old young man’s dead body all push those that are aware of this case to call for action, even 27 years later. The family appealed to the Montgomery County Police Department, then to District Attorney Doug Ganzler and eventually the United States Attorney General, Janet Reno to simply investigate this case and the subsequent actions of the police department.
“We have simply asked for a criminal investigation and answers to the inconsistencies that are apparent,” says Sherri Warren. “My brother, just as any American, deserves a full investigation of his death and I will not rest until he has justice.”
It seems that not only “Southern” trees bear strange fruit, in this case it was a tree in an affluent county in Maryland that boar the body 19 year old young man taken from the earth when he was just beginning to blossom into manhood. Who will stand for justice in the Keith Waddell Warren case?