Fifteen years apart, two separate Leflore County grand juries have reached the same conclusion.
There is not enough evidence to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham for any crimes related to the 1955 kidnapping, torture and murder of Emmett Till.
Two separate FBI investigations, whose results were presented both times to grand jurors, came to the same conclusion.
If Donham, who was married to one of Till’s professed killers at the time of the lynching, was a willing accomplice in the abduction or murder, there is insufficient evidence to prove either case. If there had been, she almost certainly would have been indicted, since grand jury proceedings are heavily tilted toward the prosecution’s set of facts.
There is admittedly a lot of conjecture about Donham’s role in the sequence of events that ultimately led to Till’s murder.
Till was a precocious 14-year-old from Chicago, unschooled in the racial taboos of Mississippi in the Jim Crow era. He would not have known that as a Black male, he was on dangerous ground when he got fresh with Carolyn Bryant, an attractive married white shopkeeper.
But how fresh did Carolyn Bryant claim Till was when she was allegedly confronted by her husband, Roy Bryant, within days of the incident? Did she embellish to him about Till’s behavior the way she did in court when Roy Bryant was put through a sham trial? Or was that testimony, which the 1955 jury was prevented from hearing, something she had been put up to saying by her husband and his defense team?
And what about that mysterious female-sounding voice from inside the vehicle the night of Till’s abduction from his great-uncle’s home in Money? Was that Carolyn Bryant who positively identified Till to his killers, as has been speculated over the years? Or was that someone else?
Donham has claimed her innocence for Till’s death, going so far as to say in a recently publicized memoir that she lied to try to protect the teen. Though that claim doesn’t sound credible, no one has been able to prove that she was an active participant in anything that happened to Till that awful night. Those who unquestionably witnessed what took place have died, but even if they were living, 67-year-old memories would be hard to completely rely on.
Those who have clamored for years for Donham’s prosecution are unlikely to be satisfied by the latest development. They want someone to be imprisoned for Till’s death, and Donham has been the last individual living who could fulfill that desire for a justice tinged by revenge.
Although it is now unlikely that Donham will ever spend time in a physical prison, she has been locked up in a metaphorical one. For the past couple of decades, she has been pursued by journalists, historians and criminal investigators, all trying to prove what she knew and what she did. She has been living as a recluse just to avoid the spotlight of being associated with one of the most notorious racial crimes in U.S. history. Most recently, she was reportedly tracked down to Kentucky, where she is believed to be receiving hospice care.
In her late 80s and in apparent poor health, Donham will probably not live much longer. She may take her secrets to the grave with her, which will frustrate historians but is her prerogative. She will, however, not die unscathed by a tragedy that has left a seemingly indelible stain on Mississippi.
Donham may not have paid the price that some wanted her to pay, but she has suffered for what happened to Till. Anyone who claims otherwise is not being honest with themselves.
It is time to let her be.