Grand jury declines to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham for Emmett Till kidnapping

A Leflore County grand jury last week heard seven hours of testimony from investigators and witnesses, but said there was not enough evidence to charge Carolyn Bryant Donham with kidnapping and manslaughter, according to a statement from District Attorney Dewayne Richardson.

The grand jury heard testimony from witnesses detailing the investigation of the case from 2004 to the present day and considered both counts, the statement said.

“After hearing all aspects of the investigation and the evidence gathered regarding Donham’s involvement, the grand jury returned a ‘no bill’ to the charges of kidnapping and manslaughter,” says the communicated. “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.”

Family members of Emmett, whose murder in the Jim Crow-era South spurred the civil rights movement in America, said earlier this summer they unearthed an unserved arrest warrantt for Bryant Donham, her late husband and brother.

The warrant is dated August 29, 1955 and signed by the Leflore County Clerk. The image of the warrant shows that the current clerk certified the document as authentic on June 21.

A note on the back of the warrant says Bryant Donham was not arrested because she could not be located at the time, according to the New York Times, which quoted filmmaker Keith A. Beauchamp, who was part of the team that uncovered the warrant. CNN contacted Bryant Donham at the time but did not hear back.
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Emmett’s family had hoped the warrant would lead to charges and, ultimately, justice.

“Justice needs to be served,” Emmett’s cousin Deborah Watts told CNN in late June, adding, “Emmett got us there. I know that in my heart.”

A cousin who witnessed Emmett’s abduction, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., said Tuesday that state officials assured the family that no effort would be spared in the fight for justice.

“They delivered on their promise in bringing this final piece of evidence before the grand jury. This outcome is unfortunate, but predictable news,” he said in the statement. “The prosecutor did his best, and we appreciate his efforts, but he alone cannot undo hundreds of years of anti-Black systems that ensured those who killed Emmett Till would go unpunished, to this day.”

While Emmett’s murder remains a watershed moment in America’s long fight against racial injustice and inequality, to date no one has been held criminally responsible.

Emmett, who lived in Chicago, was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he had his fateful encounter with then-20-year-old Carolyn Bryant in the summer of 1955. Accounts of this day differ, but witnesses have claimed that Emmett had whistled the woman at the market she owned with her husband in the town of Money.

Emmett Till's family seek justice after finding unissued arrest warrant in his case
Four days later, Roy Bryant and JW Milam then pulled Emmett out of bed in the middle of the nightordered him into the back of a pickup truck and beat him before shooting him in the head and dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River.

But they were both acquitted of the murder by an all-white jury following a trial in which Carolyn Bryant testified that Emmett grabbed her and verbally threatened her. The jury deliberated for barely an hour.

The men later admitted to the murder in a 1956 interview with Look magazine.

Emmett’s death drew attention far beyond Mississippi after a photo of his mutilated body was published in Jet Magazine and circulated around the world. His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, had demanded he hold an open funeral so the world could see her son’s wounds and the results of racial terrorism – a move that helped fuel the civil rights movement .

A timeline of the changing stories of Emmett Till's accuser

Milam died in 1980 and Bryant died in 1994. Bryant Donham is in his late 80s.

In 2007, a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict Bryant Donham on charges. And according to archived FBI documents, Milam and Roy Bryant were arrested for kidnapping in 1955, but a grand jury failed to indict them. “The original court, district attorney, and investigative records related to the 1955 investigation have apparently been lost,” the FBI said in a 2006 report.

Bryant Donham testified in 1955 that Emmett grabbed his hand, waist, and proposed to him, saying he had been with “white women” before. But years later, when Professor Timothy Tyson brought up that testimony during an interview with Bryant Donham in 2008, he claimed she told him, “That part isn’t true.”

The prospect of the woman at the center of the Emmett case backtracking on her testimony… which, according to the United States Department of Justice in a note, would contradict the declarations she did at the state trial in 1955 and later at the FBI – sparked calls for authorities to reinvestigate the case.
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The DOJ, which had already reviewed and closed the case in 2007, reopened the investigation into Emmett’s 2018 murder. But the case was closed in December after the The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division concluded it could not prove Bryant Donham lied. Asked directly, Bryant Donham categorically denied to investigators that she had retracted.
Emmett’s legacy, however, lives on: in March, President Joe Biden signed the law into law the historic Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which made lynching a federal hate crime.

CNN’s Amy Simonson, Sara Sidner, Tina Burnside, Dakin Andone, Devon Sayers, Elizabeth Joseph and Eliott C. McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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