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Justice Department closes inquiry into murder of Emmett Till, finds no proof accuser lied

Investigators found no record that Carolyn Bryant Donham recanted her testimony about Till, a senior-level law enforcement official says.

A federal investigation that re-examined the murder of Emmett Till ended Monday after the Justice Department failed to find proof that a key figure in the case lied, a senior level law enforcement official said.

Till, a Black teenager from Chicago, was brutally beaten and shot in the head in 1955 after a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, said he whistled at her and touched her in a Mississippi store. He was only 14 at the time of his death.

J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, Donham’s husband at the time, were acquitted of Till’s murder by an all-male, all-white jury in Mississippi that deliberated for just over an hour before it returned a not guilty verdict. Both men, who have since died, told a magazine journalist that they committed the crime, offering a detailed account of the gruesome slaying.

Deborah Watts, Till’s cousin, said in 2017 that investigators were looking into whether Donham admitted to lying about the incident. A previous federal investigation opened in 2004 and a subsequent grand jury inquiry went nowhere, as prosecutors noted that the statute of limitations for criminal charges had passed.

Donham was reported to have recanted her story to the author Timothy B. Tyson, telling him she lied about the incident.

Image: Emmett Till
Emmett Till.AP file

“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she was alleged to have told Tyson while describing her “sorrow” for Till’s mother.

But Donham denied to federal investigators that she lied in her testimony, a source with knowledge of the case said, and there were inconsistencies with statements made by Tyson. Justice Department officials plan to release a memo after they brief Till's family in Chicago, the source added.

Tyson stood by his reporting, describing Donham as unreliable in an emailed statement.

"Carolyn Bryant denies it and avoids talking about it like it was the plague," he said. "I am standing in the public square telling the truth as I see it based on solid evidence."

He said his interview with Donham revealed nothing new because "we have long known she was lying." Tyson noted that his book also included dozens of pages of documented evidence, including evidence the FBI collected when it reopened the case in 2004.

"Let us just look at the evidence as if I had never talked to Carolyn," Tyson said. "That she lied in court does not depend on her admission of it to me, not at all."

Till's murder shocked the nation, acting as a catalyst for the civil rights movement. Thousands of people attended his funeral, where his mother insisted on an open casket to show the brutality of his killing.