BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (WOOD) — The death of a 16-year-old whose body was found in the St. Joseph River three decades ago was a homicide, the Michigan attorney general says, but the suspect in the case has been dead for years.

Eric McGinnis vanished from Benton Harbor on May 17, 1991. His body washed up along the river days later. It was initially ruled an accidental drowning, but his family has always believed he was killed because he was Black.

About a year ago, the St. Joseph Department of Public Safety returned to the case. In the fall, it asked Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s Office to take over.

The AG’s Office told News 8 on Tuesday it determined the case was a homicide. But state investigators added that the main suspect in the case died in 2003.

“While our efforts cannot bring Eric back, nor render justice in the eyes of the law, we do hope the family is vindicated by our department’s confirmation that Eric was indeed the victim of a homicide,” Nessel said in a statement. “We understand this is little comfort to those who lost their loved one, but we do hope it provides some closure for the family and friends of Eric McGinnis. My office remains committed to providing our expertise to outside agencies and we thank local law enforcement in this case for its coordination and cooperation with our department’s review.”

The McGinnis’ family’s attorney Leonard Mungo, questioned in a statement why the attorney general did not release the name of the suspect.

“While we appreciate the attorney general’s office reopening the case, they also fell far short as to naming that suspect. We believe it is inadequate and disrespectful to protect the name of a murderer. We request a disclosure immediately for the sake of transparency.”

Leonard Mungo

The McGinnis’ family has always believed it was murder, citing video and a witness who is now willing to testify. They say police have always had access to evidence could have acted 30 years ago.

“Your conscious decision at that time … to say, ‘No, we’re not going to proceed with that.’ Why? Because the witness … they felt wasn’t credible,” McGinnis’ uncle Benny Bowers said at a news conference Tuesday morning. “But in 2022, guess what, he’s credible all of a sudden.”

In a statement, the St. Joseph Department of Public Safety says the witness refused to speak with its investigators.

“After conducting additional interviews which did not develop any information that advanced the investigation, the Department of Public Safety believed it had exhausted its leads and asked the Attorney General’s office to conduct an independent investigation, bringing its resources to bear with the goal of finding the truth,” the statement said.

Mungo, the McGinnises’ attorney, said that the family’s independent investigation continues.

A lawyer representing the family of Eric McGinnis speaks during a news conference in Benton Harbor on Aug. 19. 2022.
A lawyer representing the family of Eric McGinnis speaks during a news conference in Benton Harbor on Aug. 19. 2022.

“It was alleged that there were no bruises or contusions all throughout the body of Eric McGinnis. I question that. The family questions that,” attorney Leonard Mungo said. “Immediately, we’re looking at and deliberating exhuming Eric’s body for a reliable autopsy.”

The family would like to see any accomplices charged, and it also wants to see charges against investigators who worked the case in the early 1990s for their alleged mistakes.

“When it’s in the hands of agencies who have the power to arrest this, to stop this cycle of suffering, you’re obligated to do it. You’re obligated by the oath of office that you took to do this for us, for citizens,” Mungo said.

It is also calling for an investigation from the U.S. Department of Justice, arguing the case falls under the newly approved Emmett Till Antilynching Act.