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Justice Department closes Emmett Till investigation without filing charges

The grave marker of Emmett Till at Burr Oak Cemetery in Illinois. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

The Justice Department has closed the latest federal investigation into the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in rural Mississippi, a case that horrified the country and galvanized the civil rights movement.

Till, a Black 14-year-old visiting from Chicago, was murdered after he was accused of whistling at and making sexual advances toward a White woman, Carolyn Bryant, during an interaction at Bryant’s grocery store in Money, Miss.

Federal authorities reopened the case three years ago, after a new book reported that Bryant had denied in an interview that Till had made any advances. In theory, that could have meant she lied in decades-old court proceedings.

But Justice Department officials said Monday that when the FBI questioned Bryant about those alleged statements to the book’s author, she said she did not make them, and the author’s interview tape and transcripts do not show her making such statements.

Justice Department officials met Monday with members of Till’s family to inform them of the decision to close the case.

How the mother of Emmett Till sparked the civil rights movement

Till was kidnapped on Aug. 28, 1955, tortured and shot. His mangled body was found days later in the Tallahatchie River and taken to Chicago for burial. Thousands waited in line to bear witness.

Photographs of Till’s corpse — which at his mother’s insistence was kept in an open coffin for the world to see — became some of the most consequential images of racial violence against African Americans.

A 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” by historian Timothy Tyson, includes the first-known interview with Bryant.

The book said Bryant told Tyson that Till had not come on to her sexually, a disclosure that directly contradicted her testimony six decades earlier, when she told a jury that Till grabbed her by the waist and uttered obscenities.

“That part’s not true,” Tyson quotes Bryant, now in her late 80s, as saying. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

The release of the book reignited interest in Till’s case, which put a harsh national spotlight on racial violence in the postwar era. The book also spurred speculation about whether Bryant — now known as Carolyn Donham — could face charges.

In a statement on Monday, the Justice Department said the FBI was unable to confirm Tyson’s assertion that Donham had recanted her prior testimony. When agents interviewed her, she denied ever recanting and provided no new information, the Justice Department statement said.

Authorities concluded there was “insufficient evidence to prove that she ever told the professor that any part of her testimony was untrue,” the statement said. “Although the professor represented that he had recorded two interviews with her, he provided the FBI with only one recording, which did not contain any recantation.”

A transcript of Tyson’s other interview also did not contain the alleged recantation, officials said. Even in the professor’s telling, officials said, it wasn’t clear what Bryant would have meant by “that part’s not true.”

Read the FBI’s explanation for why it closed the probe in the Emmett Till case

Tyson, a senior research scholar at Duke University, had previously said that he interviewed Donham in 2008 and finished writing the book eight years later. In a written statement on Tuesday, the historian praised the FBI’s work on the Till case. He also insisted his account of what Donham said was accurate.

“I had taken clear notes on what she said before I got my clunky recorder on,” Tyson said in the statement. “Every significant claim that I make based on my interview with Carolyn Bryant Donham is also corroborated by archival sources. I could have written essentially the same book without having the interviews.”

Tyson said years ago that someone from the FBI contacted him a few months after his book was published and he gave the FBI agent “everything he wanted to see.” His research materials were subpoenaed, he said.

But the author has said he was skeptical the investigation would lead to any criminal charges. “Because the only thing that she disclosed to me is perjury, that she testified falsely in court. The statute of limitations on that ran out in 1958.”

In 2018, more than a year after Tyson’s book was published, the Justice Department told Congress in a report that the investigation into Till’s death had been reopened “after receiving new information,” without specifying what the new information was.

The death and history of Emmett Till fades in this Mississippi town

Tyson received a copy of Donham’s unpublished memoir, “More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Memoir of Carolyn Bryant Donham,” which he gave to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under the restriction that it not be released until 2036 or until Donham’s death.

He said he does not know why Donham decided to talk to him.

“I’ve wondered that myself, but I can’t read her mind,” Tyson said.

Donham’s former husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, were prosecuted for Till’s death. An all-White jury acquitted them after just over an hour of deliberation, but the two later told a journalist that they had killed Till. They died without being convicted.

Federal and state officials have reinvestigated the murder case in recent decades, but none of the probes have resulted in new charges.

In 2004, the Justice Department was asked to consider prosecuting other subjects who may have been involved in Till’s slaying. The FBI reopened the investigation, and Till’s body was exhumed in 2005.

But officials later decided it had no jurisdiction because the statute of limitations had expired on potential federal crimes.

In 2007, the case was referred to the state prosecutor for Mississippi’s Fourth Judicial District, but a grand jury declined to issue new charges.

This story originally published on Dec. 6 and was updated Dec. 7 to include a statement from author Timothy Tyson.