Re­newed Em­mett Till probe prompted by book

Men ac­quit­ted in 1955 slay­ing of black teen are dead; it’s un­clear what new charges could arise

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Jay Reeves

A2017 book that re­vealed lies by a key fig­ure in the Em­mett Till case has prompted the U.S govern­ment to re­new its in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the bru­tal 1955 slay­ing, a fed­eral of­fi­cial said Thurs­day.

The re­open­ing of the case had stayed quiet un­til the con­tents of a fed­eral re­port came to light ear­lier in the day. Till rel­a­tives and so­cial jus­tice ac­tivists wel­comed a fresh look at the killing that shocked the coun­try and stoked the civil rights move­ment, but ac­knowl­edged that the pas­sage of time could ham­per jus­tice.

Hours af­ter news broke about the re­newed in­ves­ti­ga­tion, a fed­eral of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter told the As­so­ci­ated Press that in­for­ma­tion in the 2017 book was what led fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors to re-ex­am­ine the case. The of­fi­cial wasn’t au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the mat­ter pub­licly and spoke to AP on con­di­tion of anonymity.

The book The Blood of Em­mett Till by Ti­mothy B. Tyson quotes a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Don­ham, as say­ing dur­ing a 2008 in­ter­view that she wasn’t truth­ful when she tes­ti­fied that the black teen grabbed her, whis­tled and made sex­ual ad­vances at a Mis­sis­sippi store six decades ago.

Tyson told re­porters Thurs­day that he was con­tacted by the FBI weeks af­ter his book was pub­lished in Jan­uary 2017, and he fur­nished them in­ter­view record­ings and other re­search ma­te­ri­als. He doesn’t think his re­search alone would sup­port new charges but said in­ves­ti­ga­tors may be able to link it to other ma­te­rial in their pos­ses­sion.

The re­open­ing of the Till case was dis­closed in a fed­eral re­port sent to law­mak­ers in March that said the Jus­tice De­part­ment had re­ceived un­spec­i­fied “new in­for­ma­tion.” The re­port’s con­tents weren’t widely known un­til Thurs­day.

A po­ten­tial wit­ness with the 14-year-old Till in the store that day, cousin Wheeler Parker, said Thurs­day that he has talked with law en­force­ment about the case in re­cent months.

The pros­e­cu­tor with ju­ris­dic­tion over the Mis­sis­sippi com­mu­nity where Till was ab­ducted, District At­tor­ney De­wayne Richard­son, de­clined to com­ment on whether fed­eral au­thor­i­ties had given him new in­for­ma­tion since they re­opened the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The Jus­tice De­part­ment also de­clined to com­ment.

It’s un­clear what new charges could re­sult from a re­newed in­ves­ti­ga­tion, said Tucker Car­ring­ton, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­sis­sippi law school.

Con­spir­acy or mur­der charges could be filed if any­one still alive is shown to have been in­volved, he said, but too much time likely has passed to pros­e­cute any­one for other crimes, such as ly­ing to in­ves­ti­ga­tors or in court. The case was closed in 2007 with au­thor­i­ties say­ing the sus­pects were dead. Two white men — Don­ham’s then-hus­band, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam — were charged with mur­der but ac­quit­ted in the slay­ing of Chicago teen Till, who had been stay­ing with rel­a­tives in north­ern Mis­sis­sippi at the time. The men later con­fessed to the crime in a mag­a­zine in­ter­view but weren’t re­tried. Both are now dead.

Don­ham, who turns 84 this month, lives in Raleigh, N.C. A man who came to the door at her res­i­dence de­clined to com­ment about the FBI re­open­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The govern­ment has in­ves­ti­gated 115 cases in­volv­ing 128 vic­tims un­der the “cold case” law named for Till, the March fed­eral re­port said. Only one re­sulted in in a fed­eral con­vic­tion since the act be­came law.

Ab­ducted from the home where he was stay­ing, Till was beaten and shot, and his body was found weighted down with a cot­ton gin fan in a river. His mother, Mamie Till, had his cas­ket left open. Images of his mu­ti­lated body gave wit­ness to the depth of racial ha­tred in the Deep South and in­spired civil rights cam­paigns.

Don­ham, then 21 and known as Carolyn Bryant, tes­ti­fied in 1955 as a prospec­tive de­fense wit­ness in the trial of Bryant and Milam. With ju­rors out of the court­room, she said a black man she didn’t know took her by the arm in the store.

“He said, ‘How about a date, baby?’ ” she tes­ti­fied, ac­cord­ing to a trial tran­script re­leased by the FBI a decade ago. Bryant said she pulled away, and mo­ments later the young man “caught me at the cash reg­is­ter,” grasp­ing her around the waist with both hands and pulling her to­ward him.

A judge ruled the tes­ti­mony in­ad­mis­si­ble. An all-white jury freed her hus­band and the other man even with­out it.

In the book, au­thor Tyson wrote that Don­ham told him her tes­ti­mony about Till ac­cost­ing her wasn’t true.

“Noth­ing that boy did could ever jus­tify what hap­pened to him,” the book quotes her as say­ing.


From left, J.W. Milam, Juanita Milam, Carolyn Bryant and Roy Bryant sit to­gether in a court­room in Sum­ner, Miss., in Septem­ber 1955. The men were charged with mur­der but ac­quit­ted in the kid­nap-tor­ture-slay­ing of 14-year-old black teen Em­mett Till. Cit­ing ‘new in­for­ma­tion,’ the U.S. Jus­tice De­part­ment has re­opened the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Till’s death.

Em­mett Till

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