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Grand jury declines to indict woman, 87, whose accusation led to Emmett Till’s killing

Emmett Till's photo is seen on his grave marker in Alsip, Ill.
(Robert A. Davis / Associated Press)

A grand jury in Mississippi has declined to indict the white woman whose accusation set off the lynching of Black teenager Emmett Till nearly 70 years ago, despite revelations about an unserved arrest warrant and a newly revealed memoir by the woman, a prosecutor said Tuesday.

After hearing more than seven hours of testimony from investigators and witnesses, a Leflore County grand jury last week determined there was insufficient evidence to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham on charges of kidnapping and manslaughter.

It is now increasingly unlikely that Donham, who is now in her 80s, will ever be prosecuted for her role in the events that led to Till’s lynching.

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An email and voicemail seeking comment from her son Tom Bryant weren’t immediately returned Tuesday.

A group searching the basement of the Leflore County Courthouse in June discovered the unserved arrest warrant charging Donham, then-husband Roy Bryant and brother-in-law J.W. Milam in Till’s abduction in 1955. While the men were arrested and acquitted on murder charges in Till’s subsequent slaying, Donham, 21 at the time and 87 now, was never taken into custody.

Congress has passed legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime. The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act now goes to President Biden to sign into law.

In an unpublished memoir obtained last month by the Associated Press, Donham said she was unaware of what would happen to the 14-year-old Till, who lived in Chicago and was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was abducted, killed and tossed in a river. She accused him of making lewd comments and grabbing her while she worked alone at a family store in Money, Miss.

Donham said in the manuscript that the men brought Till to her in the middle of the night for identification but that she tried to help the youth by denying it was him. After being abducted at gunpoint from a relative’s home by Roy Bryant and Milam, the 14-year-old identified himself to the men, she claimed.

Till’s battered, disfigured body was found days later in a river, where it was weighted down with a heavy metal fan. The decision by his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to open Till’s casket for his funeral in Chicago demonstrated the horror of what had happened and added fuel to the civil rights movement.

Associated Press writer Allen G. Breed contributed to this report.


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