1955 warrant in Emmett Till case found, family calls for arrest

JACKSON, miss — A team searching a Mississippi courthouse basement for evidence of the lynching of black teenager Emmett Till found the unexecuted warrant charging a white woman in his 1955 kidnapping, and the victim’s relatives want the authorities to finally arrest him almost 70 years later.

A warrant for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant Donham – identified as “Mrs. Roy Bryant” on the document – was discovered last week by researchers in a folder that had been placed in a box, the Associated Press Leflore County circuit clerk Elmus Stockstill.

The documents are kept in boxes by decade, he said, but nothing else indicated where the warrant, dated August 29, 1955, might have been.

“They narrowed it down to the 50s and 60s and got lucky,” said Stockstill, who certified the warrant to be genuine.

The search party included members of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation and two of Till’s relatives: cousin Deborah Watts, head of the foundation; and his daughter, Teri Watts. Relatives want authorities to use the warrant to arrest Donham, who at the time of the murder was married to one of two white men tried and acquitted just weeks after Till was abducted from a relative’s home, killed and dumped in a river.

“Serve it and load it,” Teri Watts told the AP in an interview.

Keith Beauchamp, whose documentary film “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” preceded a new Justice Department investigation that ended without charge in 2007, was also part of the search. He said there was enough new evidence to prosecute Donham.

Donham sparked the case in August 1955 by accusing 14-year-old Till of making improper advances at a family store in Money, Mississippi. A cousin of Till’s who was there said Till had whistled the woman, an act that went against racist Mississippi social codes of the time.

Evidence indicates that a woman, possibly Donham, identified Till to the men who later killed him. The warrant for Donham’s arrest was made public at the time, but the Leflore County Sheriff told reporters he didn’t want to “inconvenience” the woman because she had two young children to care for.

Now 80 and most recently living in North Carolina, Donham has not publicly commented on the calls for her prosecution. But Teri Watts said the Till family believe the warrant charging Donham with kidnapping is new evidence.

“This is what Mississippi State needs to move forward,” she said.

District Attorney Dewayne Richardson, whose office would prosecute a case, declined to comment on the warrant but cited a December report on the Justice Department’s Till case, which said no prosecution was possible.

Contacted by the AP on Wednesday, Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks said, “This is the first I’ve seen of a warrant.”

Banks, who was 7 when Till was killed, said “nothing was said about a warrant” when a former district attorney investigated the case five or six years ago.

“I’ll see if I can get a copy of the warrant and get with the prosecutor and get their opinion on it,” Banks said. If the warrant can still be served, Banks said, he will need to speak to law enforcement officers in the state where Donham resides.

Arrest warrants can “become obsolete” due to the passage of time and changing circumstances, and one from 1955 would almost certainly not make it to court even if a sheriff agreed to serve it, Ronald J. Rychlak, a law professor. at the University of Mississippi.

But combined with any new evidence, the original arrest warrant could “absolutely” be an important stepping stone to establishing probable cause for a new prosecution, he said.

“If you went before a judge, you might say, ‘Once upon a time there was a judge who determined there was probable cause, and a lot more information is available today,'” Rychlak said.

Till, who was from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he entered the store where the then 21-year-old Donham worked on August 24, 1955. A relative of Till who was there, Wheeler Parker, told AP that Till had whistled at the woman. . Donham testified in court that Till also grabbed her and made a lewd comment.

Two nights later, Donham’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, JW Milam, showed up armed at the rural Leflore County home of Till’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, looking for the youngster. Till’s brutalized body, weighed down by a fan, was pulled from a river days later in another county. His mother’s decision to open the casket so that mourners in Chicago could see what had happened helped galvanize the civil rights movement of the time.

Bryant and Milam were acquitted of the murder but later admitted to the murder in a magazine interview. Although both men were named in the same warrant charging Donham with kidnapping, authorities did not pursue the case after their acquittal.

Wright testified at the murder trial that a person with a “lighter” voice than a man identified Till inside a van and the kidnappers took him away. Other evidence in FBI files indicates that earlier that same night, Donham told her husband that at least two other black men were the wrong person.


Reeves reported from Newnan, Georgia.

ABC News

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