Relatives of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teenager who was lynched in 1955 after a white woman accused him of whistling at her, want his accuser prosecuted for her role in his death.
In 1955, Carolyn Bryant Donham accused Till of inappropriate advances, leading to Donham’s then-husband Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam beating Till and shooting him in the head. The two were arrested but acquitted by an all-white male jury in Mississippi in an era before the Civil Rights movement, so no one has been held accountable for one of the most famous false accusations of all time.
“Carolyn Bryant Donham was named nearly 67 years ago in a warrant that accused her in Till’s abduction, even before his mangled body was found in a river, FBI records show, yet she was never arrested or brought to trial in a case that shocked the world for its brutality,” the Associated Press reported.
Authorities back then reportedly didn’t want to bother Donham since she had two young children.
Till’s relatives told the AP they would prefer Donham prosecuted for murder for her role in Till’s death, but an attorney for the family suggested that since the kidnapping warrant apparently was never dismissed, it could still be used to arrest Donham.
“This warrant is a stepping stone toward that,” said Jaribu Hill, the attorney representing Till’s relatives. “Because warrants do not expire, we want to see that warrant served on her.”
As the AP noted, there are numerous issues with attempting to prosecute Donham today.
“Witnesses have died in the decades since Till was lynched, and it’s unclear what happened to evidence collected by investigators. Even the location of the original warrant is a mystery. It could be in boxes of old courthouse records in Leflore County, Mississippi, where the abduction occurred,” the outlet reported.
Still, Till’s relatives want Donham held responsible.
“Mississippi is not the Mississippi of 1955, but it seems to still carry some of that era of protecting the white woman,” said Deborah Watts, a distant cousin of Till.
The Daily Wire reported in December that the U.S. Department of Justice said it found no evidence that Donham had ever lied about Till. Federal investigators began looking into whether Donham had lied about what, if anything, actually happened between her and Till. Donham had reportedly recanted her accusation to author Timothy B. Tyson, telling him that she had lied about what Till had done. Tyson claimed that Donham told him, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” when speaking about her “sorrow” for what Till’s mother went through. Donham reportedly denied ever lying in her testimony, NBC News reported. A source with knowledge of the case told the outlet that there were apparently inconsistencies in Tyson’s statements.
Tyson, however, stood by his reporting, telling NBC that Donham was not a reliable witness.
“Carolyn Bryant denies it and avoids talking about it like it was the plague,” Tyson said. “I am standing in the public square telling the truth as I see it based on solid evidence.”
He added that nothing he reported was new, since “we have long known she was lying.” He told NBC that his book contained pages of documented evidence that the FBI collected when it had re-opened the Till case in 2004.
“Let us just look at the evidence as if I had never talked to Carolyn,” Tyson said. “That she lied in court does not depend on her admission of it to me, not at all.”
In its press release regarding the investigation, the DOJ said it found no evidence Donham had ever lied, closing the case without any arrests. In its case document, the DOJ said it could not prosecute Donham or anyone else because it had “not uncovered any new evidence that would change its conclusion from its 2004 investigation that it was not able to bring federal charges against [Donham] in connection with Till’s abduction and murder.”
Another issue the DOJ faced was that the statute of limitations has run out for all “potential federal crimes that could apply to Till’s abduction and murder, and there is no other potential basis for federal jurisdiction,” the Department said. This includes prosecuting Donham for allegedly lying on the stand or making false allegations against Till.