Aug 9, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Grand jury declines to indict Emmett Till's accuser

Photo of a protester holding a sign that says "We still march for Emmett Till" at a rally outdoors
A demonstrator holds a sign in honor of Emmett Till during a protest on June 13, 2020, in Chicago. Photo: Natasha Moustache via Getty Images

A grand jury in Mississippi has declined to indict the white woman whose harassment allegations against Emmett Till led to his abduction and murder.

Why it matters: The June discovery of a 1955 warrant charging Carolyn Bryant Donham for kidnapping in Till's case spurred calls for an arrest and answers.

Details: The LeFlore County grand jury, which deliberated on charges of kidnapping and manslaughter, considered evidence and testimony from witnesses and investigators for more than seven hours before concluding there was not sufficient evidence to indict Donham, Leflore County District Attorney Dewayne Richardson said in a statement.

  • Donham, now in her 80s, most recently lived in North Carolina.

What they're saying: "This outcome is unfortunate, but predictable, news," Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Till's cousin and the last living witness to Till's abduction, said in a statement. "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."

  • "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," Parker noted.
  • "Going forward, we must keep the details, and memory, of the brutal murder of Emmett Till, and the courage of Mamie Mobley, alive, so that we can reduce racial violence [and] improve our system of justice," Parker said, referring to Till's mother, whose choice to keep Till’s casket open for his funeral in Chicago helped fuel the civil rights movement.
  • Axios sent a request for comment to an email that is believed to belong to Donham.

Catch up quick: In 1955, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam lynched Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, after Donham — Bryant's wife at the time — accused Till of grabbing and propositioning her, despite witness accounts saying he whistled at her.

  • An all-white jury cleared the two white men in 1955, though they admitted to killing Till in an interview a year later.
  • According to historian Timothy Tyson's 2017 book, Donham told him that trial testimony was false when they spoke in 2008. She later denied recanting her testimony to federal investigators.
  • Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice formally closed its second investigation into the murder.

The big picture: After the warrant was found in a box in a Mississippi courthouse basement and certified by a local county clerk, Till's family urged authorities to use the unserved warrant to arrest Donham.

  • Priscilla Sterling, Till's cousin, told reporters in July that his family feels the federal government and the state of Mississippi are "protecting [Bryant]" and that authorities had told Richardson to "not move forward on the warrant."
  • "The family wants Carolyn Bryant to face justice. And by justice, we want her to at least come here and defend herself."

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