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Emmett Till’s family calls for woman’s arrest after finding 1955 warrant

This undated photo shows Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black Chicago boy, whose body was found in the Tallahatchie River near the Delta community of Money, Miss., on Aug. 31, 1955. (AP)

The family of Emmett Till is calling for the woman linked to the Black teen’s kidnapping in 1955 to be arrested after a team searching for new evidence into the infamous lynching found an unserved warrant for her that was never executed almost 70 years ago.

Leflore County Circuit Clerk Elmus Stockstill told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the search group, which included two of Till’s relatives and members of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, discovered a warrant for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant Donham — identified as “Mrs. Roy Bryant” on the document — in a file folder in the basement of a Mississippi courthouse last week.

Donham, who is White, had accused the 14-year-old Till of making improper advances at a family store in Money, Miss., in August 1955 — an accusation that started the chain of events that led to Till’s lynching. Donham was married to Roy Bryant, one of the two White men who were acquitted weeks after Till was abducted from a relative’s home, lynched and tossed into a river.

While the documents are sorted by decades, it’s unclear where the warrant, dated Aug. 29, 1955, was located for all these years. Stockstill told the Associated Press that he certified the warrant to be real after it was found June 21.

“They narrowed it down between the ’50s and ’60s, and got lucky,” Stockstill said.

A photo of the warrant published by the Mississippi Free Press shows a document that reads, “We command You To Take the Body of J W Milam, Roy Bryant, and Mrs. Roy Bryant if to be found in your County … to answer the State of Mississippi on a charge of Kidnapping.” Check marks are next to Milam’s and Roy Bryant’s names, but Donham, identified as “Mrs. Roy Bryant,” does not have one next to hers.

The news of the discovery led family and longtime advocates to call for the arrest of Donham, who is in her late 80s and most recently lived in North Carolina, according to public records. Since police never served the warrant, it is possible for law enforcement to still seek her arrest.

Till’s cousins Deborah and Teri Watts had previously delivered a petition to Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch (R) requesting the prosecution of Donham for Till’s kidnapping. The Justice Department announced in December that it had ended its investigation into Till’s lynching.

“Execute warrant now!” tweeted the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation.

“Serve it and charge her,” Teri Watts told the Associated Press, adding that finding the warrant amounted to new evidence. “This is what the state of Mississippi needs to go ahead.”

Donham, Stockstill, the Justice Department and Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks did not respond to requests for comment.

While a 1955 warrant would probably not hold up if a sheriff were to serve it, any new evidence could provide a stronger argument for the discovery of the warrant to bring about a new probe, Ronald J. Rychlak, a distinguished professor of law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, told The Washington Post.

“If officers want to pursue this case, presumably they have whatever information they had back in 1955, plus some more. You really could go in front of a judge today or tomorrow and get a new arrest warrant if you think, in fact, there is probable cause and suspicion for a crime,” Rychlak said. “The warrant doesn’t really give us new substantive evidence of her role in this crime, but it does indicate she was a suspect at one time and that a judge determined probable cause to arrest her at one time.”

In August 1955, Till traveled from Chicago to visit relatives for a summer vacation in Mississippi, where he would stay with his great-uncle, Moses Wright. Till’s mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, who had been born and raised in rural Mississippi, warned her son that the state was rife with racism and reminded him that he needed to obey his relatives.

“She told him ‘to be very careful … to humble himself to the extent of getting down on his knees,’ ” according to Time. “ ‘Living in Chicago,’ she explained at the trial of his murderers, ‘he didn’t know.’ ”

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A few days after Till arrived in Mississippi, he and his cousins went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money to buy some candy. According to accounts, Till allegedly whistled at Donham, then Carolyn Bryant, who worked at the store.

Maurie Wright, Till’s 16-year-old cousin, told the United Press in a report published Sept. 1, 1955: “Emmett went into the store and asked for some bubble and left after telling the women ‘goodbye.’ Outside, Emmett gave a ‘wolf call.’ I told Emmett to be careful of what he said in the store.”

That night, on Aug. 28, 1955, the woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, went to Till’s great-uncle’s home and demanded the boy come out, according to a 2007 Associated Press report.

“Moses pleaded with the men to leave Emmett alone,” according to PBS. “ ‘He’s only 14, he’s from up North. Why not give the boy a whipping, and leave it at that?’ ” His wife, Elizabeth Wright, “offered money to the intruders, but they ordered her to go back to bed.”

Till’s uncle “led the men throughout his home with flashlights until they found Emmett in a bed, sleeping,” according to the PBS report. “They woke him up and told him to get dressed.”

Three days later, Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River, with a cotton-gin fan tied around his neck.

Bryant and Milam were charged with murder and brought to trial on Sept. 19, 1955, in Sumner, Miss. Five days after the trial began, Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-White, all-male jury after about an hour of deliberations in a decision that shocked the world.

There have been multiple efforts to reexamine the Till case, as when the Justice Department reopened the case in recent years. Although Leflore County District Attorney Joyce Chiles brought the case against Donham before a grand jury in 2007, she declined to indict her for the murder of Till. No one was ever convicted of Till’s slaying.

Nearly 60 years after the lynching, Donham revealed that she lied about her interaction with Till. In the 2017 book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” Timothy B. Tyson, a professor at Duke University, wrote that Donham conceded in an interview that Till did not make a sexual advance toward her. Her statement directly contradicted her testimony decades before, when she told a jury that Till had grabbed her waist and said crude things to her.

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In announcing that Donham would not face prosecution, the Justice Department noted that “the government does not take the position that the state court testimony the woman gave in 1955 was truthful or accurate.” Donham told the FBI that she had never recanted her accusations, with the Justice Department saying there was “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she lied to the FBI.”

“There remains considerable doubt as to the credibility of her version of events, which is contradicted by others who were with Till at the time, including the account of a living witness,” the Justice Department said in a December 2021 news release.

Milam and Bryant are both dead, but Till’s family and supporters have maintained that Donham should be arrested. Before the discovery of the document, filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, who directed the 2005 documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” said in a talk at Southern University that he believed a warrant for Donham existed for years, according to the Free Press.

“The next step is to go after Carolyn,” Beauchamp said. “She needs to be held accountable for her participation in kidnapping and murder.”

Rychlak, the Ole Miss law professor, told The Post that it was “unique and amazing that a document would turn up this much later.”

“I’m not aware of anything even close in precedent to this,” he said.

As the news of the warrant spread, many on social media called for action against Donham. Among those was Shuwaski Young, a Democratic candidate for Congress who called on law enforcement “to act swiftly and decisively.”

“Justice has been delayed long enough,” he wrote.

Beauchamp, who was part of the search group that found the document, expressed optimism that charges could eventually be brought nearly seven decades after Till’s death.

“It’s not over until it’s over …” Beauchamp tweeted.