We should be talking about the death of Mikayla Miller

It’s been nearly a month since 16-year-old Mikayla Miller was found dead, with a belt around her neck and tied to a tree, in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. It remains unclear what happened to the Black teenager, who identified as LGBTQ — both before she died and how she died.

What is apparent is the girl’s family does not want the local authorities to be the ones in charge of finding out. The case, which is only now starting to garner national attention, is becoming another tragic example of law enforcement failing to adequately investigate the death of a Black victim, address immediate concerns raised by grieving loved ones, or communicate effectively to those demanding accountability.

Mikayla’s mother, Calvina Strothers, has remained vocal in her criticism of both Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan and other authorities involved with the investigation. Per the family’s spokesperson, activist Monica Cannon-Grant of Violence in Boston Inc., the family is calling for an independent investigation and autopsy. (The district attorney’s office said earlier in May that the case remains open.)

Flowers were placed in the woods in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, on May 4, where Mikayla Miller was found dead on April 18.
Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Elected officials have taken up the call. US Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who represents the nearby Seventh District, echoed their demand in a statement to Vox: “With far too many unanswered questions about how Mikayla died, we must have a full, transparent, and independent investigation into her death,” Pressley’s statement reads. “The investigation will help ensure accountability and closure for Mikayla’s family and allow her loved ones and community to begin to heal.”

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth 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.”

A rally and vigil this month in Hopkinton helped shine a harsher light on the authorities’ investigation to this point. Mikayla’s mother and local activists repeated complaints about both the investigation and the alleged mishandling of events surrounding it.

“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 told the attendees. “What I want is for the criminal justice system to work.”

It was a familiar scene: a grieving family mourning the death of a Black child, leveling complaints about the law enforcement apparatus tasked to investigate. If the authorities aren’t yet suspicious about what happened to Mikayla, the events surrounding her death provide reasons to remain suspicious of the authorities themselves.

What we know — and don’t — about Mikayla Miller’s death

The problems Mikayla’s family point to start with something that happened while she was still alive.

The night before the teenager was found dead, she was reportedly the victim of a physical assault. On the evening of April 17, Strothers called the Hopkinton police and said her daughter had been “jumped,” pushed, and punched in the face by at least two people, Ryan, the Middlesex County district attorney, told the press last week.

According to Ryan, at least two people, a boy and a girl, were involved; Miller had a bloody lip, consistent with her allegation.

Monica Cannon-Grant, speaking on behalf of the Miller family, said at least five teenagers aside from Mikayla were present — including one girl with whom Mikayla had recently ended a relationship. In a May 4 press conference and in a subsequent statement, Ryan appeared to signal the teenagers were not a focus of the investigation into Miller’s death, citing cellphone GPS data, video surveillance, and witness accounts.

The morning after the assault, April 18, a Hopkinton police detective was called to the Berry Acres Conservation Area. According to an affidavit reviewed by Boston’s NBC affiliate, WBTS, he found Miller’s body hanging from a tree branch, suspended by a black leather belt around her neck; the affidavit said he saw no wounds or bleeding on her body, the scene “appeared to be undisturbed,” and he saw no dirt or debris on her clothing or shoes to suggest a struggle. Her phone and personal belongings were either on her person or near her body. The leaves on the ground “appeared to be matted and heavily traveled,” although he noted Miller was found on “a heavily traveled town path.”

Cannon-Grant said a Massachusetts State Police sergeant initially told Miller’s mother that her daughter had ended her own life. The family also has repeatedly claimed that an officer advised Strothers not to go to the press because doing so would reveal her daughter’s sexual orientation. (The state police directed Vox’s request for comment to the Middlesex County district attorney’s office, which has not yet responded.)

Miller’s family argues the investigation hasn’t been thorough or transparent

The assault is where the Miller family’s complaints about the investigation’s transparency begin. Violence in Boston Inc. released a statement on May 2 attributed to Strothers and alleging that the Hopkinton police logged neither the attack on Miller nor the discovery of her body.

A publicly available log generated and tweeted by the Hopkinton Police Department displays no information about either the assault or Miller’s death. One of the first incidents on the morning of April 18 is not a jogger finding a deceased teenager, but two officers helping change a tire. (The department has not yet returned a call from Vox requesting clarification and confirmation.)

When first asked during her May 4 presser about the claims that police told Strothers that her daughter committed suicide and why her office said the death wasn’t considered suspicious, Ryan said, “Very often, as everyone knows, things may appear to be one thing, and then we learn more information. I think that is why initially, we always indicate this is at this time. Clearly, often things come to light as we proceed further in this case.”

Strothers has also openly questioned some of the early conclusions and decisions Ryan has made in the case, aside from the initial determination that the death was “not suspicious.” Miller had her mobile phone and belongings still on or near her person when she was found, per the district attorney; though Strothers contends that her daughter’s phone didn’t have tracking data activated and that she confirmed this with Apple, Ryan indicated in her press conference last week that “the phone traveled a distance of 1,316 steps” between 9 and 10 pm on the night of April 17, “approximately the distance between Mikayla’s home and the place where her body would subsequently be located.”

Investigators also weren’t able to obtain video evidence from Miller’s residential building — neither the assault she suffered nor, potentially, her departure to take the steps Ryan referenced. The video system at the building was rebooted on the morning of April 19, the day after the jogger reportedly discovered Miller’s body, erasing any footage from the prior 17 days. It is as yet unclear why investigators didn’t obtain the footage before the system’s reboot.

“It’s highly unusual that there’s no notation on it. It’s downright suspicious,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, a Yale professor who previously founded the Center for Policing Equity. “It is incredibly distressing to imagine that our lives, and therefore our deaths, don’t rate to record — even when it’s clear indications that there is a homicide.”

Talk is a start, but this is about action

Any death, particularly of someone so young, matters. However, given the documented difference in the manner press and public officials alike treat the disappearances and killings of Black women and girls as opposed to their white counterparts, those investigating a case need to be more cognizant of what their actions communicate.

It has been about a year since a global civil rights uprising began, and while predominantly white governmental and law enforcement institutions may claim to value Black lives, the proof is in the results. As evidenced by the reactions of the family and other Black constituents to their actions thus far, Ryan and all those currently investigating Mikayla Miller’s death are not grasping that such care is best demonstrated through results. Words alone won’t cut it.

During her May 4 press conference, Ryan spoke in gushing terms about Mikayla, describing her as “a beautiful child,” as well as “a cherished daughter, a gifted student, a talented athlete, and a loyal friend.” She talked about getting to the answers concerning her death “with due speed” and pledged to be forthcoming with details about the investigation, which she emphasized was ongoing.

All of that sounds good, but how does the discovery of that beautiful child, dead with a belt around her neck, not appear suspicious to the district attorney investigating the incident? Why did that assessment not change after the police affidavit describing the scene surfaced? And why weren’t either the assault or the discovery of Mikayla’s body logged? It is more than a clerical misstep.

“When you’ve got a body like that, that’s a crime scene,” Goff said. “If you’re treating a crime scene of a Black child that way, that’s a level of casualness that nobody in ... a community who’s Black is going to feel okay with.”

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