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Justice Department Considering Reopening Emmett Till Murder Case, Family Says

The Department of Justice is considering reopening the investigation into the infamous murder of Emmett Till, after meeting with the boy’s family.
Image: Emmett Till
Emmett Louis TillAP

The Department of Justice is considering reopening the investigation into the infamous murder of Emmett Till — an African-American teen whose brutal killing charted the course of the civil rights movement — after meeting with the boy’s family.

Till’s cousin, Deborah Watts, said U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told her "no one gets a pass," adding that he would like to look into more unsolved civil rights crimes during a meeting with her and civil rights activist Alvin Sykes, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

In 1955, 14-year-old Till was savagely beaten and shot in the head by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam after Bryant’s wife, Carolyn Bryant Donham, said the boy whistled at her and touched her in a Mississippi store.

Image: Emmett Till
Emmett Louis TillAP

Three days later Till's badly disfigured body was found attached to a cotton gin fan floating in the Tallahatchie River.

Till’s mother kept her son’s casket open at his funeral, attended by thousands, to show the brutality of the killing.The murder sparked national outrage and sparked mass protest.

Image: Mamie Till Mobley weeps at Emmett Till's funeral
Mamie Till Mobley weeps at her son's funeral on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago. Chicago Sun-Times via AP

Nevertheless, an all-white jury acquitted Bryant and Milam. The duo confessed killing Till almost a year later but were not charged again.

And Donham, now 82, recently recanted her story to author Timothy B. Tyson, telling him she lied about the incident.

"Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him," she told Tyson while describing her "tender sorrow" for Till's mother.

Related: Emmett Till Book Prompts Cousins to Call For A New Investigation

This confession should be the basis of the reinvestigation, said Congressman Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, in a letter he wrote to Assistant Attorney General Thomas Wheeler in February asking him to reexamine the case.

Donham admitted that she “fabricated the interaction with Till while under oath during the trial of Till’s murderers,” wrote Thompson in the letter. This “false statement holds liability for the death of Emmett Louise Till” and “affords the DOJ [Department of Justice] the opportunity to bring some justice to an innocent 14-year old boy,” Thompson wrote.

Wheeler said “the Department is currently assessing whether the newly revealed statement could warrant additional investigation," in a letter to Thompson this week, provided to NBC News by the congressman's office.

But reminded him it would not be an easy task.

“We caution, however, that even with our best efforts, investigations into historic cases are exceptionally difficult, and there may be insurmountable legal and evidentiary barriers to bringing federal charges against any remaining living persons,” he wrote.

The Department of Justice declined a request for comment by NBC News.

Related: #MuseumsSoWhite: Black Pain and Why Painting Emmett Till Matters

Till's murder case was reexamined in 2004 but a grand jury declined to indict due to the statute of limitations being well exceeded.

But in 2016, President Obama signed the Emmett Till Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016, which gives government agencies the ability to reopen investigations into civil rights era cold cases. The legislation expanded a previous law signed by President George W. Bush in 2008.

"We are eager to discuss this with the Justice Department," Cory Horton, deputy chief of staff for Thompson, told NBC News Thursday. "And we are hopeful they will move forward not only with this investigation but with the many other crimes that have remained unsolved from the civil rights era."