Emmett Till's accuser admits she lied; will new charges be filed?
USA TODAY NETWORK Jerry Mitchell, The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger Published 1:20 p.m. ET Feb. 7, 2017 |
Emmett Till and the renewed push to solve ...
Emmett Till was killed Aug. 28, 1955, and the federal Justice Department still struggles to resolve civil-rights-era murders. Video provided by Newsy Newslook
(Photo: Courtesy of family)
JACKSON, Miss. — Carolyn Bryant has admitted she lied when she testified in 1955 that Emmett Till touched her — a lie she repeated to the FBI a decade ago.
Lying to the FBI is a crime. So is obstruction of justice.
Both carry up to five years in prison.
But prosecuting the 82-year-old woman now would be difficult if not impossible because the five-year statute of limitations has run out, experts say.
“It appears that time has once again robbed us of justice in the Emmett Till case,” said former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who successfully prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan’s 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls.
I assume that now is the time that Carolyn Bryant is beginning to be concerned about her immortal soul.
Keith Beauchamp, whose documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till helped inspire the FBI to reopen the case in 2004, said he would like to see the FBI investigate this new revelation.
►Related: 'The Blood of Emmett Till' remembers a horrific crime
“There must be some accountability here,” he said. “This is the murder of a 14-year-old boy that sparked the American civil-rights movement. At least we should pursue the truth.”
Now that Bryant “has started talking, we’ll see if we can keep her credibly talking," said Alvin Sykes, president of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign. His work also helped inspire the FBI to reopen the case.
““There must be some accountability here. This is the murder of a 14-year-old boy that sparked the American civil-rights movement.”
Keith Beauchamp, 'The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till'
Sykes, a civil-rights activist who was architect of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act that President George W. Bush signed in October 2008, said he has opened lines of communication with authorities “to determine if we have one best chance to find out the whole truth by prosecutorial or alternative non-prosecutorial methods.”
In the end, “the truth must rule,” he said.
In 1955, an all-white jury acquitted Bryant's husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, of murdering Till — only for them to confess months later to Look magazine that they had beaten and killed the 14-year-old from Chicago.
Before that trial ended, Carolyn Bryant, 21 at the time of the crime, took the witness stand for her husband and testified outside the presence of the Tallahatchie County jury.
She said that at about 8 p.m. Aug. 24, 1955, “a n----- man,” whom she identified as Till, “came in the store, and he stopped there at the candy case.”
She said instead of putting the money in her hand, Till grabbed her hand with a strong grip and said, “How about a date, baby?”
She jerked her hand loose and went to the back of the store, where she said her sister-in-law, Juanita Milam, was living.
►Related: Emmett Till bill could pave way for reopening more civil rights cold cases
Then she said Till caught her by the waist and remarked, “What’s the matter, baby? Can’t you take it?”
She said she struggled to break free of his grip and that he said, “You needn’t be afraid of me.”
Carolyn Bryant poses for a photo in 1955 when she was
Carolyn Bryant poses for a photo in 1955 when she was at the center of the trial of Emmett Till's alleged killers. After a divorce and second marriage, she is now known as Carolyn Donham. (Photo: Gene Herrick, AP)
She said he reassured her that he had been “with white women before.”
She testified that she was “scared to death” and that “this other n----- came in the store and got him by the arm” and said, “Come on. Let’s go.”
While leaving, Till said goodbye, she testified.
She explained that she called out for Juanita Milam to watch her as she ran out the door to retrieve the pistol under the driver’s seat in Juanita Milam’s car.
She said she heard Till whistle and then saw him leaving in a car.
After the FBI's reopening of the case in 2004, she spoke to an FBI agent. By then, she had divorced Roy Bryant, remarried and had the last name Donham.
She repeated the story about Till she had previously testified to, telling the agent that “as soon as he touched me, I started screaming.”
She told the FBI that she didn’t tell her husband about what happened because she was worried he would beat Till up. She said she also asked Juanita Milam not to tell her husband “because I didn’t intend to tell Roy, because I was afraid of what they would do.”
But when the FBI questioned Juanita Milam, she revealed that she wasn’t at the store as Carolyn Bryant had claimed and that she “would not have been babysittin’ for her.”
►Related: $20K raised to replace bullet-riddled Emmett Till sign
Notes The Clarion-Ledger obtained reveal that Carolyn Bryant gave a different story when she first spoke to defense lawyers in 1955, saying Till “insulted” her but mentioned nothing about touching her.
Tim Tyson, author of the The Blood of Emmett Till, published Jan. 31, said Monday that she told him her testimony about a physical assault from Till was "not true."
“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
Carolyn Donham, formerly Carolyn Bryant, speaking to author Tim Tyson about Emmett Till
“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Tyson quoted her as saying.
He said she gave no reason for the story she told although he suspects she contrived it for her husband's family and lawyers. In 1975, she divorced Roy Bryant for habitual cruelty.
Tyson said he hasn’t heard from the FBI regarding the matter.
“Perjury is the only crime to which she confesses, and my lawyer says the statute of limitations on perjury is two years,” he said. “The FBI declined to prosecute her, and I expect that is where this will stay. But, of course, I am not a lawyer.”
He said she did tell him that her then-brother-in-law, Melvin Campbell, was the one who shot Till. Campbell was never prosecuted and died in 1972.
Three years after the FBI reopened the Till case, a majority-black grand jury in Greenwood, Miss., declined to indict her in connection with Till’s killing.
“District Attorney Joyce Chiles and her assistant, Hallie Gail Bridges, worked really hard and did everything in their power to see justice done for Emmett Till, but the evidence was not quite strong enough or quite fresh enough,” said retired Assistant U.S. Attorney John Hailman of Oxford, Miss., who worked on the case.
►Related: Widow of Emmett Till killer dies quietly, notoriously
Beauchamp said he believes that Carolyn Bryant should have been indicted for manslaughter involving culpable negligence.
“She knew the danger Emmett Till would be in and did nothing to stop it,” he said.
Roy Bryant, right, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam,
Roy Bryant, right, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, second from right, walk Sept. 30, 1955, down the steps of the Leflore County Courthouse in Greenwood, Miss., after being freed on bond in the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till. Bryant and Milam, now dead, later were acquitted but confessed months afterward. (Photo: AP)
In an editorial Monday, The New York Times wrote that her admission to lying “raises anew the question of why no one was brought to justice in the most notorious racially motivated murder of the 20th century, despite an extensive investigation by the FBI.”
Since 1994, 24 men, many of them former Klansmen, have been convicted in these civil-rights cold cases.
Last year, Congress reauthorized the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which has been expanded to include cold cases through the 1970s.
Devery Anderson, author of Emmett Till: The Murder That shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement, said the Till killing became "much more than simply an historical event." His name invoked any time a black male has died under unjust or questionable circumstances.
"This is in keeping with Mamie Till-Mobley's quest that her son not die in vain," Anderson said. "We think of Emmett Till to show far far, and sadly, how little we have come since 1955. He has become the nation's most salient wake-up call."
Carolyn Bryant has written about her experiences in the Till case in an unpublished memoir, More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Memoir of Carolyn Bryant Donham, which won’t be available for public inspection at the University of North Carolina archives until 2036 or when she dies.
If Mississippi authorities or the FBI decided to reopen the Till case, they could become interested in the contents of that memoir.
In 1988, a grand jury in Hattiesburg, Miss., subpoenaed an interview that one-time KKK Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers gave the Mississippi Department of Archives and History with the understanding it wouldn’t be public until his death.
►Related: Civil rights, history museums planned for Mississippi
Months later, a jury convicted Bowers of ordering the 1966 murder of Vernon Dahmer, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
The Clarion-Ledger’s publication of excerpts of that interview helped lead to the reopening of the case against Edgar Ray Killen, who was convicted in 2005 of orchestrating Ku Klux Klan killings in 1964 of three civil-rights workers: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
Knowing what Carolyn Bryant has revealed in her memoir is extremely important, Beauchamp said.
“I believe that there’s information that could clear up loose ends in the case as well as reveal information that could help us understand what happened,” he said. “It can also confirm all who were involved, including those who covered up the murder.”