The death of a black prisoner found tied hand and foot and hanged from a light fixture in his jail cell has renewed racial controversy in this northern Mississippi community.

Last week an all-back coroner's jury unanimously ruled the death a suicide.

But a local civil fights group claims the panel was handpicked by white authorities to help cover up the incident, and has called for a federal investigation.

Marshall County authorities subsequently joined in that request, saying they have nothing to hide. FBI agents are in the county now.

Local officials are at a loss to explain why the prisoner would have taken his own life.

The dead man, James Edward Garrett, 25 of Memphis was found Jan. 21 hanged with the hem of a bedsheet. His hands were tied in front of him with a nylon stretch sock. His feet were bound with the mate.

There were no witnesses, county authorities say; Garrett was alone in his cell.

Other than neck bruises, a preliminary autopsy from the medical examiner's office in Memphis showed no injuries that might suggest a struggle. Holly Springs is about 30 miles southeast of Memphis. Marshall County authorities frequently call on the Shelby County medical examiner's office Memphis to perform autopsies.

Garrett, a convicted burglar, has been into custody by Marshall County deputies at a Memphis jail the day before he died. He was returned to Mississippi on a warrant charging him with the 1975 armed robbery of a convenience store near Holly Springs.

A white sheriff who promised fairness to blacks in winning election as a reform candidate in 1975 finds himself at center stage in the controversy.

"I was elected with a lot of black support," say Sheriff Smith, who previously ran a service station. "I've lived up to being fair to black and white alike. I haven't got a deputy who so much as takes a drink.You just hate being torn down by something you couldn't held."

Smith's chief critic is Alfred (Skip) Robinson, president of the United League of Marshall County and one of the sheriff's opponents in the 1975 race. Robinson calls the death "suspicious."

The United League was, formed in 1974 and waged a month-long boycott of stores in neighboring Byhalia in protest of the fatal shooting of a black youth by Marshall County deputies. One deputy was charged with man-slaughter, but the country grand jury refused to indict him.

Robinson believes the ruling of the coroner's jury to be window dressing and accuses Smith of packing the panel with vulnerable blacks.

"The sheriff pressured blacks to sit on the jury.Many of them thought they would be in trouble or lose their jobs if they didn't go along with [the ruling of] suicide."

During the hearing an investigator with the Mississippi Highway Patrol demonstrated how Garrett could have tied both hands by using his teeth. The demonstration has been repeated on Memphis newscasts. The jurors also heard testimony from trustees at the jail that Garrett was no stranger to drugs.

Smith admits he summoned an all-black panel to avoid criticism that whites influences the jury's finding. Marshall County attorney Fred M. Belk says Mississippi law in vague about how a coroner's jury is to be selected. He says the law simply requires the sheriff to round up a panel on request of the coroner.

Smith disagrees with Robinson's description of the jurors. "They are all upright citizens, school principals, shop owners, land owners - the kind of black vote I got. Skip Robinson doesn't have the better blacks following him."

Al least one of the 11 jurors says he has had second thoughts about this vote and would abstain if he had it to do over again.

"It was done awful quick," says Savaniel Moore, 53, a farmer and Robinson's brother-in-law. "After I got home were to know more about it. I couldn't sleep. There were no eyewitnesses. I hated the idea that I might have made the wrong decision."

Despite the jury's conclusion, Coroner Osborne Bell, a black who has held his elective post for 11 years, has refused to sign a certificate listing suicide as the cause of Garrett's death.

"I'm holding it until the federal investigation is over," he said, adding that blood tests have not been completed and that a presence of drugs or alcohol might help explain the death.