THE DEATH IN April of 16-year-old Hopkinton resident Mikayla Miller has prompted an outpouring of sorrow and sympathy. It has also led to charges that what happened to the African American teen may be part of a broader pattern of deaths of black Americans in which the criminal justice system holds back crucial information or fails to pursue and hold accountable those responsible.
On May 18, the state medical examiner reported that Miller’s death was due to suicide, but her family and supporters — a wide circle of advocates that now includes Ben Crump, the prominent civil rights attorney who has represented the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor — have questioned that ruling and raised the possibility that her death was a racially based killing or that investigators have covered up important details of the case.
It’s been nearly two months since Miller’s death. What do we know at this point about the tragic case of the Hopkinton teenager, and what new information could emerge?
Miller, who lived in a Hopkinton apartment complex with her mother, spent time on the evening of Saturday, April 17, at a common area clubhouse in the complex with a group of four other teens. Miller identified as part of the LGBTQ community, and one of the teens was a girl with whom she had been in a relationship.
According to a May 4 briefing by Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, investigators have established that there was a physical altercation involving Miller and two teens, one male and one female, that occurred between 5:17 pm and 6:41 pm that day. Ryan said the four teenagers remained with Miller in the clubhouse for about 20 minutes following the fight.
At 7:20 pm, Ryan said, Hopkinton police were dispatched to Miller’s apartment after her mother, Calvina Strothers, called to report that “her daughter had been jumped.” Ryan said Miller told police “she had been pushed and punched in the face.” Ryan said the officers noted she had “some blood on her lip, consistent with what she told them.”
At 7:43 pm, Ryan said the police left the apartment and went to the home of a female teen who Miller said had been involved in the altercation and took a statement. They returned to the apartment complex and viewed some damage, both inside and outside the clubhouse.
Sometime between approximately 9:30 pm and 9:45 p.m., Ryan said, Strothers went to bed, believing her daughter was in the apartment. Based on a “health app” on her cellphone, Ryan said, investigators established that Miller’s phone traveled 1,316 steps sometime between 9 pm and 10 pm.
At approximately 7:45 am, Ryan said, a jogger in the area of 35 West Main Street in Hopkinton encountered a body, later identified as Miller, in the woods and notified police. (Police logs subsequently released by Hopkinton police suggest the call to police came closer to 7 am.)
Ryan said the 1,316 steps recorded on Miller’s cellphone app the night before are the approximate distance from her family’s apartment to the location where she was found. Strothers has said the phone was not activated at that time to gather such information.
Miller’s death certificate, based on the state medical examiner’s report, was filed, listing the cause of her death as “asphyxia by hanging” and the manner of death as “suicide.”
Questions that have been raised about the case:
Miller’s mother and other supporters that have rallied behind her have raised questions about Ryan’s handling of the case and about the medical examiner’s ruling on the cause and manner of her death. Leaders ranging from US Rep. Ayanna Pressley to Gov. Charlie Baker have said they would support an independent investigation into Miller’s death. The only authority that would appear eligible to conduct such a separate probe is Attorney General Maura Healey. Her office said Healey is monitoring the investigation closely but will await Ryan’s final conclusions before weighing in further.
Strothers has questioned how thorough an investigation Ryan is conducting, saying investigators told her in the hours after Miller was found that her death appeared to be from suicide. “If they had not have immediately made a conclusion regarding my child’s death and did a proper investigation, we wouldn’t be here,” Strothers said at a May 6 vigil and rally in Hopkinton demanding more answers in the case.
Ryan says no final conclusion has yet been reached in the investigation and that any initial information shared with the family was provisional. “Initially, we always indicate this is at this time,” Ryan said of anything told to Miller’s family.
Strothers and her supporters have raised questions about the transparency of the investigation by pointing to the lack of an entry in the Hopkinton police log for the call from Strothers on April 17 about the assault at the apartment complex clubhouse or for the discovery of Miller’s body the following morning.
On May 19, Hopkinton Police Chief Joseph Bennett released the police log entry related to the discovery of Miller’s body as well as recordings of the 911 call from the jogger who discovered her, radio transmissions among first responders, and dashcam video from a police vehicle responding to the scene.
In a message posted on the police department’s website, Bennett said the call for the incident that occurred on April 17 at the apartment clubhouse was not entered in the public log because the state’s Domestic Violence Act of 2014 prohibits such disclosure for calls that involve a “dating relationship,” as was deemed the case here. As for the log reporting the discovery of Miller’s body, Bennett said he was releasing it due to “significant public inquiry.” He said it had not been publicly disclosed until that time because “incidents involving the deaths of children are generally not included in the public log.”
On May 19, the day after the death certificate was filed, Crump, the national civil rights attorney, held a telephone briefing for reporters along with other civil rights leaders and Strothers, questioning the finding that Miller died as result of suicide. “I know the truth, and it’s not what they say,” said Strothers. “What Calvina and the family of Mikayla Miller want to know is: Was she lynched? And if she was, why aren’t we saying that?” Crump said.
A week later, Crump tweeted that that the medical examiner ruled Miller’s death the result of a suicide, “but the facts don’t add up.” He noted that she was “assaulted by five white teens less than 24 hours before she was found dead.” He said two of the teens “have relationships with local police” and “to our knowledge, none of the teens have been questioned.” He said, “Mikayla was found standing upright, not hanging, with a belt tied around her neck” and that the belt was “tied to a small tree that couldn’t have withstood her body weight.”
According to Ryan, there were four teens in the clubhouse with Miller while there was a fifth who was outside in a car during the encounter. Ryan said one of the teens was Hispanic. She said all of them have been questioned by investigators, who have witness and digital evidence of their whereabouts in the hours after the clubhouse altercation. As for local police ties, WBZ reported that one of the five teens is the grandchild of a former Hopkinton officer who died “decades ago,” but “none have current ties to the department.”
As for the conditions under which Miller was found, NBC10 Boston reported on May 7 that it reviewed a court affidavit from a Hopkinton police detective who arrived at the location in the woods where Miller was found early on the morning of April 18, together with two Hopkinton police sergeants and one officer.
“As I approached the scene I could see an African American female suspended from a tree branch,” the detective wrote, according to the station. He said he observed no external wounds on her, and that the ground in the area appeared to be undisturbed. He noted that a thin black leather belt was attached to a small branch and secured around Miller’s neck.
Crump did not respond to emails and a telephone message left with his law firm asking what the basis is for the claims he made about the case.
Investigators’ handling of the case
Strothers has said Ryan did not reach out for nearly two weeks after her daughter’s death. A spokeswoman for Ryan said the chief of the office’s victim witness services bureau was in touch with Strothers on April 19, the day after Miller was found.
The handling of the case by State Police Sgt. Sean O’Brien, who has been part of the investigation, has been questioned by Miller’s mother, who said that he warned her not to go to the media about the case “or my daughter’s sexuality would be exposed.” In a May 4 television appearance on GBH’s “Greater Boston,” Ryan said of the allegation about O’Brien’s conduct, “That is something that we are looking into — as to what that conversation was.” As of Friday, her office said it had nothing further to add on the issue.
On the same GBH appearance, Ryan was questioned about the April 17 altercation that prompted Strothers to call the police and report that her daughter had been assaulted. When pressed by host Jim Braude, Ryan said she did believe, based on what is known about the encounter, that a crime occured, but said that doesn’t necessarily mean her office has the evidence needed to bring charges. “As with any criminal charges,” Ryan said in her May 4 press briefing, “we will obviously have to make an assessment, given the circumstances, obviously with Mikayla’s death, as to whether we have sufficient evidence to go forward.” Ryan said there are no charges pending at this point, but “the investigation into that assault remains open.”
What other background information is known?
On May 19, NBC10 Boston reported that it had obtained a copy of an email sent on April 12 by Miller’s ex-girlfriend to a guidance counselor at Hopkinton High School, where Miller was a sophomore. “I’m really worried about Mikayla Miller and I didn’t know who else she could talk to,” the teen wrote, according to the station, which said it obtained the email from the attorney for the ex-girlfriend but wasn’t identifying her because she is a juvenile. “I know you’re her guidance counselor but I think she really needs someone to talk to. She’s been crying and having panic attacks all weekend and she normally never does.” The counselor replied that she would “check in on Mikayla,” but the station said school officials did not reply to inquiries about what, if anything, was done to follow-up on the report.
On May 7, the Boston Herald reported that Strothers has an open assault case in Middlesex County involving the alleged hitting of a teenage daughter in March 2020. The identity of the child was redacted in the police report, which said the state Department of Children and Families was notified and took custody of the minor. WBZ said advocates involved in the case accuse prosecutors of keeping the case open against Strothers “out of revenge for her speaking out about the death investigation.” Ryan’s office would not comment on the case, in which Strothers is charged with “assault and battery on a family member.” A hearing in the case is scheduled for July 23.
What will happen next?
Miller’s family had an independent autopsy conducted, but has not released the results.
Ryan’s office said it is still awaiting the full autopsy report from the state medical examiner. “The investigation remains active and ongoing,” a spokeswoman for her office said. At her May 4 briefing, Ryan said any suggestion that her office has either ignored or covered up anything in the case because Miller was black or a member of the LGBTQIA community “is patently false.”