A Mississippi grand jury has declined to indict the white woman whose accusation sparked the lynching of Black teenager Emmett Till nearly 70 years ago, despite revelations about an outstanding arrest warrant and the woman’s newly revealed memoir, a prosecutor said Tuesday.
A Leflore County grand jury last week determined that there was insufficient evidence to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham on charges of kidnapping and manslaughter after hearing more than seven hours of testimony from investigators and witnesses, according to Leflore County District Attorney Dewayne Richardson in a news release.
Donham, who is now in her 80s, is unlikely to face prosecution for her role in the events that led to Till’s lynching.
Emmett Till’s cousin and the last living witness to Till’s 1955 kidnapping, the Rev. Wheeler Parker, Jr., called Tuesday’s announcement “unfortunate, but predictable.”
“The prosecutor did his best, and we appreciate his efforts,” Parker said, “but he alone cannot undo hundreds of years of anti-Black systems that ensured those who murdered Emmett Till would go unpunished to this day.”
“The fact remains that those who abducted, tortured, and murdered Emmett were doing so in broad daylight, and our American justice system was and continues to be structured in such a way that they could not be brought to justice for their heinous crimes.”
An email and voicemail left for Donham’s son Tom Bryant were not returned on Tuesday.
In June, a group searching the basement of the Leflore County Courthouse discovered an unsealed arrest warrant accusing Donham, his then-husband Roy Bryant, and his brother-in-law J.W. Milam of Till’s kidnapping in 1955. While the men were arrested and acquitted on murder charges in the subsequent slaying of Till, Donham, who was 21 at the time and is now 87, was never arrested.
Donham said in an unpublished memoir obtained by The Associated Press last month that she had no idea what would happen to 14-year-old Till, who lived in Chicago and was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was abducted, killed, and thrown in a river. She accused him of making lewd remarks and grabbing her while she was working alone at a family business in Money, Mississippi.
According to Donham’s manuscript, the men brought Till to her in the middle of the night for identification, but she tried to help the young man by denying it was him. Despite being kidnapped at gunpoint from a family home by Roy Bryant and Milam, the 14-year-old allegedly identified himself to the men.
Till’s battered, disfigured body was discovered days later in a river, weighted down by a heavy metal fan. Mamie Till Mobley’s decision to open Till’s casket for his funeral in Chicago demonstrated the horror of what had occurred and fueled the civil rights movement.
After receiving inquiries about whether charges could be brought against anyone still alive, the Justice Department launched an investigation into Till’s death in 2004. The department stated that the statute of limitations on any potential federal crime had expired, but the FBI worked with state investigators to determine whether state charges could be brought. A Mississippi grand jury declined to indict anyone in February 2007, and the Justice Department announced that the case would be closed.
After a 2017 book quoted Donham as saying she lied when she claimed Till grabbed her, whistled, and made sexual advances toward her, the Justice Department reopened the investigation. Donham’s relatives have publicly denied that she recanted her allegations against Till. However, federal officials announced last year that their investigation had been reopened, citing “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she lied to the FBI.”