For the second time, a Leflore County grand jury has decided there is insufficient evidence to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham in connection with the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till.
Last week, a grand jury heard more than seven hours of testimony but returned a “no bill” on charges of kidnapping and manslaughter, according to a press release Tuesday from District Attorney W. Dewayne Richardson.
“After hearing every aspect of the investigation and evidence collected regarding Donham’s involvement,” the grand jury declined to indict her, the release said.
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Donham, 87, is the former wife of Roy Bryant. Bryant, along with his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till from his uncle’s home in Money on Aug. 28, 1955, and then brutally beat and killed him.
Till, a Black 14-year-old from Chicago, was visiting his family in Leflore County and was accused of wolf-whistling at Donham, then known as Carolyn Bryant, at the grocery store owned by the Bryants and where the 21-year-old white woman kept shop.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, famously had Till’s funeral feature an open casket in order to display the viciousness of his murder.
Roy Bryant and Milam were found not guilty by an all-white, all-male jury in Tallahatchie County but later admitted to the killing in a paid magazine interview. Bryant and Milam are both long deceased.
The lynching of Till and the acquittal of his killers are credited with galvanizing the civil rights movement.
Grand jury proceedings are sealed for six months, but Richardson’s press release said testimony at last week’s proceedings came from witnesses with direct knowledge about the case as well as investigators who looked into it.
The decision to present the case to the grand jury was precipitated by the discovery in June of a 1955 arrest warrant for kidnapping against Donham, the release said. The arrest warrant, which was never served, was found where old court records are stored in the basement of the Leflore County Courthouse.
Till’s cousin and the last living witness to his abduction, the Rev. Wheeler Parker, said in a statement to The Associated Press that the outcome was “unfortunate but predictable.”
“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 statement said.
“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.”
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 the case is an example of the freedom afforded to white women to escape accountability for making false accusations against Black men.
“She has still escaped any accountability in this case,” Watts 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.”
In 2007, another Leflore County grand jury considered the evidence against Donham following a three-year FBI investigation and also voted to not indict her on a manslaughter charge.
Gary Woody, a Greenwood businessman who served on that 2007 grand jury, said Tuesday that he doesn’t believe there was enough evidence to indict Donham.
“I don’t think she should have been indicted,” he said, adding that it happened so long ago and the perpetrators have long been dead. From the evidence presented in 2007, he wasn’t convinced of Donham’s involvement.
He said he hates the situation for the Till family and doesn’t think the challenge of seeking justice for his murder will ever end.
In 2017, a joint federal and state investigation was reopened based on claims that Donham may have recanted previous statements given in the 1955 trial of her husband or to FBI investigators during their 2004 to 2007 investigation.
Donham, who had been living in North Carolina but recently has been reportedly seen in Kentucky, has denied recanting her testimony.
Last year, the FBI closed the second investigation, saying there were no suspects still living for which the evidence supported pursuing a prosecution.
“The murder of Emmett Till remains an unforgettable tragedy in this country and the thoughts and prayers of this nation continue to be with the family of Emmett Till,” Richardson’s statement said.
Timothy Tyson, the North Carolina historian who interviewed Donham for his 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” said the newly rediscovered warrant did nothing to “appreciably change the concrete evidence against her.” But he said the renewed focus on the case should “compel Americans” to face the racial and economic disparities that still exist in the nation.
“The Till case will not go away because the racism and ruthless indifference that created it remain with us,” Tyson wrote in an email Tuesday. “We see generations of Black children struggle against these obstacles, and many die due to systemic racism that is every bit as lethal as a rope or a revolver.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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