Till relatives seek accuser’s prosecution in 1955 kidnapping

Apr 21, 2022, 6:47 PM | Updated: Apr 22, 2022, 7:52 am
In this Sept. 22. 1955 photo, Carolyn Bryant rests her head on her husband Roy Bryant's shoulder af...

In this Sept. 22. 1955 photo, Carolyn Bryant rests her head on her husband Roy Bryant's shoulder after she testified in Emmett Till murder court case in Sumner, Miss. Stymied in their calls for a renewed investigation into the murder of Emmett Till, relatives and activists are advocating another possible path toward accountability in Mississippi: They want authorities to launch a kidnapping prosecution against the woman who set off the lynching by accusing the Chicago teen of improper advances in 1955. (AP Photo, File)

(AP Photo, File)

Stymied in their calls for a renewed investigation into the killing of Emmett Till, relatives and activists are advocating another possible path toward accountability in Mississippi: They want authorities to launch a kidnapping prosecution against the woman who set off the lynching by accusing the Black Chicago teen of improper advances in 1955.

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.

Authorities at the time said the woman had two young children and they did not want to bother her. Donham’s then-husband and another man were acquitted of murder.

Make no mistake: Relatives of Till still prefer a murder prosecution. But there is no evidence the kidnapping warrant was ever dismissed, so it could be used to arrest Donham and finally get her before a criminal court, said Jaribu Hill, an attorney working with the Till family.

“This warrant is a stepping stone toward that,” she said. “Because warrants do not expire, we want to see that warrant served on her.”

There are plenty of roadblocks. 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.

A relative of Till said it’s long past time for someone to arrest Donham in Till’s kidnapping, if not for the slaying itself.

“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 who runs the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation.

Now in her late 80s and most recently living in Raleigh, North Carolina, Donham has not commented publicly on calls for her prosecution. She did not seem to know she had been named in an arrest warrant in Till’s abduction until decades later, said Dale Killinger, a retired FBI agent who questioned her more than 15 years ago.

“I think she didn’t recall it,” he said. “She acted surprised.”

The Justice Department closed its most recent investigation of the killing in December, when the agency said Donham had denied an author’s claim that she had recanted her claims about Till doing something improper to her in the store where she worked in the town of Money. The writer could not produce any recordings or transcripts to back up the allegation, authorities said.

Till relatives met in March with officials including District Attorney Dewayne Richardson, the lead prosecutor in Leflore County, but left unsatisfied, Watts said. “There doesn’t seem to be the determination or courage to do what needs to be done,” she said.

Richardson has been in office for about 15 years and was the first Black person to serve as president of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association. He did not return phone messages or emails seeking comment about a potential kidnapping case.

Keith Beauchamp, a filmmaker whose documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” preceded a renewed Justice Department probe that ended without charges in 2007, said there’s enough evidence to prosecute Donham.

“If we’re saying we are a country of truth and justice, we must get truth and justice … no matter the age or gender of the person involved,'” said Beauchamp.

Stories about the events that led to Till’s killing have varied through the years, but the woman known at the time as Carolyn Bryant was always at the center of it, said author Devery Anderson, who obtained original FBI files on the case while researching his 2015 book “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement.”

Till was a 14-year-old from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi when he entered the store on Aug. 24, 1955; Donham, then 21, was working inside. A Till relative who was there at the time, Wheeler Parker, told The Associated Press that Till whistled at the woman. Donham testified that Till grabbed her.

Two nights later, Donham’s then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, showed up armed at the rural home of Till’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, looking for the youth.

Wright testified in 1955 that a person with a voice “lighter” than a man’s identified Till from inside a pickup truck and the abductors took him away. Other evidence in FBI files indicates that earlier that night, Donham told her husband that at least two other Black men were not the right person.

Authorities already had obtained warrants charging the two men and Donham with kidnapping before Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River, FBI files show, but police never arrested Donham.

“We aren’t going to bother the woman,” Leflore County Sheriff George Smith told reporters, “she’s got two small boys to take care of.”

Roy Bryant and Milam were quickly indicted on murder charges and they were acquitted by an all-white jury in Tallahatchie County about two weeks later.

Grand jurors in neighboring Leflore County refused to indict the men on kidnapping charges afterward, effectively ending the threat of prosecution for Roy Bryant and Milam. Both men have been dead for decades, leaving Donham as the lone survivor who was directly involved.

Killinger, the retired federal agent, said he saw neither the original warrant during his investigation nor any indication that it was ever canceled by a court, and it’s unclear whether it could be used today to arrest or try Donham. Even if authorities located the original paperwork with sworn statements detailing evidence, he said, courts need witnesses to testify.

“And it’s my understanding that all those people are dead,” Killinger said.

___

Reeves is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Associated Press

This Week: New home sales, GDP snapshot, consumer spending

A look at some of the key business events and economic indicators upcoming this week: HOUSING MARKET BELLWETHER The Commerce Department releases its August tally of new U.S. home sales Tuesday. Economists project that sales slowed again last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 495,000 homes. That would be the slowest pace since […]
21 hours ago
Associated Press

Today in History: September 26, first presidential debate

Today in History Today is Monday, Sept. 26, the 269th day of 2022. There are 96 days left in the year. Today’s Highlight in History: On Sept. 26, 1960, the first-ever debate between presidential nominees took place as Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard M. Nixon faced off before a national TV audience from […]
21 hours ago
Associated Press

Cardinal Zen, 5 others stand trial in Hong Kong over fund

HONG KONG (AP) — A 90-year-old Catholic cardinal and five others stood trial in Hong Kong on Monday for allegedly failing to register a now-defunct fund set up to assist people arrested in the mass anti-government protests in the city three years ago. Cardinal Joseph Zen, who is a retired bishop of Hong Kong, was […]
21 hours ago
A currency trader walks near the screen showing the Korea Composite Stock Price Index (KOSPI) at a ...
Associated Press

Asian shares mostly decline echoing US slide on rate worries

TOKYO (AP) — Asian shares were mostly lower Monday, reflecting pessimism over weakness on Wall Street as the squeeze by central banks around the world to curb inflation weighs on investor sentiment. Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 dropped 2.1% in morning trading to 26,587.08. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 dipped 1.3% to 6,489.80. South Korea’s Kospi dropped 2.4% […]
21 hours ago
Members of New Zealand’s armed services participate in the State Memorial Service honoring Queen ...
Associated Press

New Zealand marks queen’s death with holiday, church service

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand on Monday marked the death of Queen Elizabeth II with a public holiday, a moment of silence and an official memorial service. The South Pacific nation is among 14 outside of the United Kingdom that continue to recognize the British monarch as their symbolic head of state. New […]
21 hours ago
U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan leaves from a port in Busan, South Korea, Monday, Sept. 26,...
Associated Press

US carrier, S. Korea ships launch drills amid North’s threat

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A U.S. aircraft carrier and its battle group launched drills with South Korean warships off the Korean Peninsula’s east coast on Monday in their first such training in five years, a day after North Korea test-fired a short-range ballistic missile in a possible response to the exercise. North Korea could […]
21 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.
...

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!
...

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]
Till relatives seek accuser’s prosecution in 1955 kidnapping