A meeting between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the family of Emmett Till could result in the reopening of the 62-year-old murder case, stemming from the admission of the ex-wife of one of the accused killers that she had lied in her testimony about the 14-year-old touching her.
“He said no one gets a pass,” Till’s cousin, Deborah Watts told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. She met with Sessions along with activist Alvin Sykes to discuss encouraging the Justice Department to enforce a law which would allow prosecutors to pursue old Civil Rights murder cases. In December, President Obama signed a bill that gives the DOJ leeway to reopen those cases.
According to the newspaper, officials are exploring the possibility of reopening the Till case because of Carolyn Bryant Donham telling author Timothy B. Tyson about her lie in his book, The Blood of Emmett Till. She testified in the trial of her then-husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam that Till grabbed her and made lewd comments in the brief time they were alone together in the store where she worked. In the book she said that was a fabrication. She also claimed at the time that Till had whistled at her, which may be because Till had a lisp when he spoke.
But in the book, she stated flatly: “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” according to the Clarion-Ledger.
Three days after Donham and Till had come across each other, the teen was found floating in the Tallahatchie River, beaten and tortured beyond recognition. In its Sept. 15, 1955 issue, JET Magazine published the gruesome photos of Till’s body, which became a catalyst to the Civil Rights movement.
The two men were acquitted in their trial, which took place a month after Till’s killing. Bryant died in 1994. Milam died in 1981. Donham and Bryant had divorced in 1975. In a 1956 interview with Look magazine, they admitted abducting and torturing Till to death. Although they had died without being convicted, a 2004 investigation into the case was opened because of the possibility that others may have also participated in Till’s murder.
When the FBI spoke to Donham, who had since remarried, she maintained her story about Till. Three years later a grand jury declined to indict her and the case was closed. The recent news is the first major development in the Till case since then.
In a letter to Mississippi congressman Bennie Thompson, Acting Assistant Attorney General T.E. Wheeler II wrote that the Justice Department “is currently assessing whether the newly revealed statement could warrant additional investigation.”
But he warned against becoming overly hopeful.
“We caution, however, that even with our best efforts, investigations into historic cases are exceptionally difficult, and there may be insurmountable legal and evidentiary barriers to bringing federal charges against any remaining living persons,” he wrote.
Thompson called for a new investigation into the case in February, with the focus on Donham and her fabrication.
Donham has written about the incident in her own writing entitled: More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Memoir of Carolyn Bryant Donham. But it remains unpublished and will not be revealed until 2036 or after her death. But it could be subpoenaed by authorities.