A group from the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation working with filmmaker Keith Beauchamp have uncovered the decades-old warrant for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant Donham, the wife of one of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s murderers in 1955. The team discovered the warrant on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in an archived file folder in the Leflore County Courthouse. The long-missing document seeks the arrest of “Mrs. Roy Bryant” for the kidnapping of the Black teenager, down from Chicago to visit family in Money, Miss., alongside her husband, Roy Bryant, and J.W. Milam, both of whom were arrested and acquitted, but who later admitted to the kidnapping and murder of Till.
Carolyn Bryant Donham, who later remarried, has long been among the last remaining survivors of those alleged to have been involved with Till’s kidnapping, torture and murder. Eyewitnesses, including the 2005 testimony of Donham herself, have placed her in the vicinity of Emmett Till on the night of his murder, Aug. 28, 1955.
The just-discovered warrant shows the men’s named checked off, but not the woman’s. Police never served the 1955 warrant to Donham, however, meaning that it is possible for law enforcement to seek her arrest now. She is 88, and her last known address was in North Carolina.
Members of Till’s family are part of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation including his cousins Deborah and Teri Watts, who previously delivered a petition to Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch requesting the prosecution of Donham for the kidnapping.
“We’ve got a promise to many that we would persist, and that’s why we’re here today,” Watts said near the Mississippi State Capitol in March this year.
Beauchamp, who has long investigated Till murder leading to a feature film “Till” that will debut in October, worked with the boy’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, until her death in 2003. He has believed for years that an arrest warrant for then-Mrs. Bryant existed and had not been served, as he said last week at Southern University in Baton Rouge. And he has been working with the team to look for it in recent months and was there when they finally found it.
“The next step is to go after Carolyn,” Beauchamp urged in Baton Rouge last week the day before the team unearthed the warrant. “She needs to be held accountable for her participation in kidnapping and murder. I believe that she should be charged under culpable manslaughter.”
Beauchamp, who is also an advisory board member of the Mississippi Free Press, tweeted today after the Associated Press reported on the warrant discovery that authorities can still serve the same warrant against Donham now.
Mrs. Bryant: Unresolved Thread in Till’s Abduction
The prosecution of Donham for involvement in Till’s abduction has long been an unresolved thread in the saga of Emmett Till. Bryant and Milam cited the encounter between Till and Bryant at the grocery store in Money, Miss., as the instigating event that inspired Till’s kidnapping. But Donham’s alleged presence at his abduction, torture or murder has not been proven in court.
In Donham’s own words to then-FBI Agent Dale Dillinger in 2005 during a cognitive interview, her husband Roy Bryant, J.W. Milam and a family friend named Elmer Kimbell brought Till by the Bryant house unharmed the night of the killing, in order for her to identify him as the boy who had whistled at her at the Bryant’s grocery store in Money, Miss., as Dillinger detailed in Baton Rouge last week.
In the 2005 interview, the former Mississippi-based FBI agent said week, Donham refused to admit that she personally identified Till in 1955. But the testimony of Moses Wright, Till’s great-uncle who courageously stood in front of an all-white jury and identified Bryant and Milam as the men who abducted his great-nephew, identified a likely female voice as having positively identified Till in the car that carried him off to his fate.
No other women were present at the encounter between Till and Donham.
Previously, Leflore County District Attorney Joyce Chiles brought the case against Donham before a grand jury in 2007, who declined to indict her for the murder of Till. “Keith was able to present the things you saw in the film today as building blocks for why there ought to be an investigation,” former FBI investigator Killinger said in Baton Rouge last week. “And that led to the district attorney saying, ‘if the FBI investigates it, I’ll prosecute it.’ So essentially the FBI investigation in 2004 was really just us doing it for the state prosecutor.”
But the no-true-bill the 2007 grand jury hearing returned does not preclude the investigation or prosecution of Donham for kidnapping or any other crime involving the lynching of Emmett Till.
FBI Unsuccessful to Date in Case
More recently, the FBI closed a renewed investigation into the murder of Emmett Till in late 2021, concluding that it did not have the ability to seek federal charges for his murder. Former FBI agent Cynthia Deitle, who led the FBI’s Cold Case Initiative from 2008 to 2011, explained last week after a June 2022 screening of documentarian Keith Beauchamp’s “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” that the agency had only three statutes available to prosecute cold cases.
“One was kidnapping across state lines, one was murder on federal land, and one was use of an explosive device,” Deitle said last week.
As Till’s kidnapping did not cross state lines, nor did his murder occur on federal land, the bureau’s ability to prosecute those involved with his lynching was limited. But the State of Mississippi has much broader general police powers, and there is no statute of limitations on kidnapping or murder in the state. Being blunt about the agency’s own institutional and systemic racism, Deitle also pointed out that the FBI in 1955 was not yet ready to prosecute Till’s killers and kidnappers under the federal civil-right conspiracy statute as they successfully used against several members of the lynch mob who killed one Black man and two white men in 1964 in Neshoba County.
Indeed, much of the case against Donham has been assembled in the years since the release of filmmaker Beauchamp’s “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” which included firsthand accounts of Till’s arrival and abduction in Mississippi, as well as the national outpouring that followed his mother Mamie Till Mobley Bradley’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral for her son to show the world his mutilated face and head.
Former FBI agents like Dillinger and Deitle acknowledged at last week’s screening in Baton Rouge that the FBI had been virtually useless in the investigation of Till’s murder until the 21st century, attempting no real investigation of the crime until 2005.
Beauchamp told the Mississippi Free Press tonight that he welcomes the discovery of the warrant he knew existed. “In the spirit of Mrs. Mamie Till Mobley and Simeon Wright who worked tirelessly to get Justice, we won’t stop until all who were involved with the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till are held accountable for their actions,” the filmmaker said.
Donna Ladd contributed to this report.