Grand Jury Declines to Indict Woman in Emmett Till Killing

JACKSON, Miss.—A Mississippi grand jury has declined to indict the woman whose accusation set off the lynching of teenager Emmett Till nearly 70 years ago, most likely closing the case.

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The decision comes despite recent revelations about an unserved arrest warrant and the 87-year-old Donham’s unpublished memoir.

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.”

Ollie Gordon, another one of Till’s cousins, told The Associated Press that some justice had been served in the Till case, despite the grand jury’s decision.

“Justice is not always locking somebody up and throwing the keys away,” Gordon said. “Ms. Donham has not gone to jail. But in many ways, I don’t think she’s had a pleasant life. I think each day she wakes up, she has to face the atrocities that have come because of her actions.”

A third cousin, Deborah Watts, who leads the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, said: “So the grand jury’s decision is disappointing, but we’re still going to be calling for justice for Emmett Till. It’s not over.”

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 woman, but denied that he touched her as she’d claimed.

In an unpublished memoir obtained last month by the AP, Donham said Milam and her husband brought Till to her in the middle of the night for identification but that she tried to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.

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.”