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Leflore County Grand Jury Declines To Charge Carolyn Bryant Donham For Emmett Till Lynching

1955 black and white portrait of Carolyn Bryant Donham
Nearly 70 years after the lynching of Emmett Till, a second Leflore County grand jury has returned no true bill for the indictment of Carolyn Bryant Donham. AP Photo/Gene Herrick, File

A Leflore County grand jury has yet again declined to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham for the 1955 abduction and lynching of Emmett Till, despite the discovery of an unserved arrest warrant in Donham’s name for kidnapping. The warrant dates back to the original investigation into the 14-year-old’s death, indicating that she was never arrested then.

Donham is the ex-wife of one of Till’s admitted killers, Roy Bryant. It was Donham’s encounter with Till at their Money, Miss., grocery store that Bryant and J.W. Milam claimed inspired their brutal abduction and lynching. Donham’s own culpability in the abduction and lynching of Till has been an open question since the first days of the 1955 trial. 

Moses Wright testified at the original trial of Milam and Roy Bryant that a feminine voice positively identified Till as he was led to the car where his family last saw him. No other women are known to have witnessed the interaction between Till and Donham earlier that week.

Emmett Till and his mother
Emmett Till was abducted from his great-uncle Moses Wright’s cabin in 1955. Wright recalled hearing a woman’s voice positively identify Till from the car he was taken to. Photo courtesy National Museum of African-American History and Culture

In the years since the boy’s murder, Donham’s story has changed. In 2004, during a cognitive interview with FBI Agent Dale Killinger, Donham claimed that her then-husband returned to their home with Till, asking her to identify him as the boy who whistled at her outside their grocery store. Donham then denied confirming his identity.

In the contents of her 2008 unpublished memoir, Donham claimed she attempted to protect Till in 1955, denying that he was the right child in that nighttime encounter. “I tried to protect him by telling Roy that ‘he’s not the one. That’s not him. Please take him home,’” Donham wrote. She then alleges that Till willingly identified himself to the men who first dragged him out of his home and would later kill him.

But none of those inconsistencies, nor the newly uncovered arrest warrant in the basement of the Leflore County Courthouse, was enough to secure an indictment against Donham, who is now 88 years old. Mississippi has no statute of limitations for kidnapping or manslaughter.

Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., cousin of Emmett Till and the last witness to his abduction at the home of Moses Wright, released a statement today lamenting the news.

“The fact remains that the people who abducted, tortured, and murdered Emmett did so in plain sight, and our American justice system was and continues to be set up in such a way that they could not be brought to justice for their heinous crimes,” Parker wrote.

Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., the last living witness to Emmett Till’s abduction, said today that “[g]oing forward, we must keep the details, and memory, of the brutal murder of Emmett Till, and the courage of Mamie Mobley, alive.” Photo courtesy Wheeler Parker Jr.
Still, Parker thanked Leflore County District Attorney Dewayne Richardson for his attempt to bring Till’s murder to court once more, so many decades after the lynching. “This outcome is unfortunate, but predictable, news. The prosecutor tried his best, and we appreciate his efforts, but he alone cannot undo hundreds of years of anti-Black systems that guaranteed those who killed Emmett Till would go unpunished, to this day.”

Tuesday’s no true bill is the second attempt to charge Donham with Till’s abduction and killing in the 21st century. Previously, in 2007, former Leflore County District Attorney Joyce L. Chiles brought the allegation before a grand jury, with the same result: no indictment for Donham. 

Parker seemed to acknowledge today that this second failure to secure a trial may signal the end of the push to bring Donham to court, and called for honoring Till’s memory.

“No family should ever have to endure this pain for this long. Going forward, we must keep the details, and memory, of the brutal murder of Emmett Till, and the courage of Mamie Mobley, alive, so that we can reduce racial violence, improve our system of justice, and treat each other with the dignity and respect with which Mrs. Mobley graced us all,” Parker concluded.

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