Grand Jury Declines To Indict White Woman In Emmett Till Killing

The decision comes despite recent revelations about an unserved arrest warrant and the 87-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham's unpublished memoir.
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An undated portrait shows Emmett Till. The 14-year-old from Chicago was visiting relatives in Mississippi in August 1955 when he was kidnapped, tortured and killed. Till's mother insisted on an open-casket funeral, and Jet magazine published photos of his brutalized body. Those images galvanized the civil rights movement. (AP Photo/File)
An undated portrait shows Emmett Till. The 14-year-old from Chicago was visiting relatives in Mississippi in August 1955 when he was kidnapped, tortured and killed. Till's mother insisted on an open-casket funeral, and Jet magazine published photos of his brutalized body. Those images galvanized the civil rights movement. (AP Photo/File)
AP Photo/File

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi grand jury has declined to indict the white woman whose accusation set off the lynching of Black teenager Emmett Till nearly 70 years ago, most likely closing the case that shocked a nation and galvanized the modern civil rights movement.

After hearing more than seven hours of testimony from investigators and witnesses, a Leflore County grand jury last week determined there was insufficient evidence to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham on charges of kidnapping and manslaughter, Leflore County District Attorney Dewayne Richardson said in a news release Tuesday.

The decision comes despite recent revelations about an unserved arrest warrant and the 87-year-old Donham’s unpublished memoir.

This file combo photo shows John W. Milam, 35, left, and his half-brother Roy Bryant, 24, center, who were charged and later acquitted in the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Bryant's wife Carolyn, is seen on the right. (AP Photo, File)
This file combo photo shows John W. Milam, 35, left, and his half-brother Roy Bryant, 24, center, who were charged and later acquitted in the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Bryant's wife Carolyn, is seen on the right. (AP Photo, File)
AP Photo, File

The Rev. Wheeler Parker, Jr., Emmett Till’s cousin and the last living witness to Till’s Aug. 28, 1955, abduction, said Tuesday’s announcement is “unfortunate, but predictable.”

“The prosecutor tried his best, and we appreciate his efforts, but he alone cannot undo hundreds of years of anti-Black systems that guaranteed those who killed Emmett Till would go unpunished, to this day,” Parker said in a statement.

“The fact remains that the people who abducted, tortured, and murdered Emmett did so in plain sight, and our American justice system was and continues to be set up in such a way that they could not be brought to justice for their heinous crimes.”

An email and voicemail seeking comment from Donham’s son Tom Bryant weren’t immediately returned Tuesday.

In June, a group searching the basement of the Leflore County Courthouse discovered the unserved arrest warrant charging Donham, then-husband Roy Bryant and brother-in-law J.W. Milam in Till’s abduction in 1955. While the men were arrested and acquitted on murder charges in Till’s subsequent slaying, Donham, 21 at the time, was never taken into custody.

The 14-year-old Chicago boy was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he and some other children went to the store in the town of Money where Carolyn Bryant worked. Relatives told the AP that Till had whistled at the white woman, but denied that he touched her.

In this 1955 file photo, Carolyn Bryant poses for a photo. A grand jury in Mississippi has declined to indict the white woman, Carolyn Donham, known as Carolyn Bryant, whose accusation set off the lynching of Black teenager Emmett Till nearly 70 years ago, despite revelations about an unserved arrest warrant and a newly revealed memoir by the woman, a prosecutor said Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene Herrick, File)
In this 1955 file photo, Carolyn Bryant poses for a photo. A grand jury in Mississippi has declined to indict the white woman, Carolyn Donham, known as Carolyn Bryant, whose accusation set off the lynching of Black teenager Emmett Till nearly 70 years ago, despite revelations about an unserved arrest warrant and a newly revealed memoir by the woman, a prosecutor said Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene Herrick, File)
AP Photo/Gene Herrick, File

In an unpublished memoir obtained last month by The Associated Press, Donham said Milam and her husband brought Till to her in the middle of the night for identification but that she tried to help the youth by denying it was him. She claimed that Till then volunteered that he was the one they were looking for.

Till’s battered, disfigured body was found days later in a river, where it was weighted down with a heavy metal fan. The decision by his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to open Till’s casket for his funeral in Chicago demonstrated the horror of what had happened and added fuel to the civil rights movement.

Following their acquittal, Bryant and Milam admitted to the abduction and killing in an interview with Look magazine. They were not charged with a federal crime, and both have long since died.

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice Department opened an investigation of Till’s killing after it received inquiries about whether charges could be brought against anyone still living.

Till’s body was exhumed, in part to confirm it was he. A 2005 autopsy found that Till died of a gunshot wound to the head, and that had fractures in his wrist bones, skull and femur.

In 2006, the FBI launched its Cold Case Initiative in an effort to identify and investigate racially-motivated murders. Two years later, Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.

The Justice Department said the statute of limitations had run out on any potential federal crime, but the FBI worked with state investigators to determine if state charges could be brought. In February 2007, a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict anyone, and the Justice Department announced it was closing the case.

But federal officials announced last year that they were once again closing their investigation, saying there was “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she lied to the FBI.”

Timothy Tyson, the North Carolina historian who interviewed Donham for his 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” said Tuesday that the newly rediscovered warrant did nothing to “appreciably change the concrete evidence against her.” But he said the renewed focus on the case should “compel Americans” to face the racial and economic disparities that still exist here.

“The Till case will not go away because the racism and ruthless indifference that created it remain with us,” he said in an email. “We see generations of Black children struggle against these obstacles, and many die due to systemic racism that is every bit as lethal as a rope or a revolver.”

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Associated Press Writer Allen G. Breed contributed to this report.

Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

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