Dec 6, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Justice Department closes Emmett Till murder probe

Photo of Emmett Till's tombstone
A faded photograph is attached to the headstone that marks the gravesite of Emmett Till in Burr Oak Cemetery in Chicago. Photo: Scott Olson via Getty Images

The family of Emmett Till announced Monday that the Department of Justice has formally closed its second investigation into the 1955 murder of Emmett Till.

Why it matters: The DOJ reopened the probe in 2018 after the white woman at the center of the case reportedly recanted her allegation that Till, a Black 14-year-old, sexually harassed her prior to his murder.

  • His killing in part galvanized the civil rights movement and highlighted injustices surrounding written and unwritten codes for Black people in the Jim Crow-era South.

Catch up quick: Till crossed paths with Carolyn Bryant Donham, who was then 20, in Mississippi at the grocery store she ran with her husband.

  • Donham testified that Till grabbed and propositioned her that day, while witness accounts said he whistled at her. Within days, Donham's husband and brother-in-law abducted and lynched Till after brutally mutilating his body.
    • An all-white jury cleared the two white men in 1955, though they admitted to killing Till in an interview a year later.
  • The DOJ launched its initial investigation in 2004 but concluded in 2007 that no one could be prosecuted based on existing evidence and the statute of limitations.
  • According to historian Timothy Tyson's 2017 book, Donham told him that trial testimony was false when they spoke in 2008.
  • After facing calls to reopen the case, federal investigators turned to Donham again, but she denied recanting her testimony.

Driving the news: The DOJ closed the probe after finding no verifiable evidence of her alleged recantation, which was not properly recorded or documented. Her family has denied that she walked back her accusation, per ABC News.

  • The announcement came after Till's family met with Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke on Monday.

What they're saying: "I was 16 years old and I remember reading how they demonized him," Wheeler Parker, Till's cousin who witnessed his kidnapping that night, said in the news conference. "And I just couldn't understand how you could treat a person like that."

  • "He did not die in vain," he said. "Many things ... have come about because of his death. Whatever we do, we can't bring him back. We can carry on and let America know we need to know the truth."
  • "Even though we don't feel that we got justice, we still must move forward so that these particular hate crimes will not continue to be done," added Ollie Gordon, another one of Till's cousins.
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