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Mississippi grand jury declines to indict woman in Emmett Till killing

The decision came more than a month after an unserved arrest warrant for Carolyn Bryant Donham was unearthed in the basement of the Leflore County Courthouse.
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A grand jury in Leflore County, Mississippi, declined to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham, a white woman whose accusations led to the lynching of Emmett Till nearly 70 years ago.

The decision came more than a month after an unserved arrest warrant for Donham was unearthed in the basement of the Leflore County Courthouse. Donham, who was identified as “Mrs. Roy Bryant” in the warrant, was married to one of two white men tried and acquitted in Till's death in 1955.

After more than seven hours of testimony from witnesses and investigators, a Leflore County grand jury determined that there was not enough evidence to indict Donham on charges of manslaughter and kidnapping. The jury's decision means Donham will most likely never be prosecuted for her role in Till's death.

Carolyn Bryant and Juanita Milam
Carolyn Bryant, left, and her sister-in-law Juanita Milam pose five days before their husbands go on trial for the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, in Sumner, Miss. on Sept. 14, 1955.AP file

Attorneys for Till's family have not publicly commented on the grand jury announcement. Members of Till's family had called for Donham's arrest and demanded that she face justice.

"We want her to at least come here and defend herself," Priscilla Sterling, Till’s cousin, told reporters last month.

The warrant, dated Aug. 29, 1955, was found inside a file folder that had been placed in a box at the courthouse, said Circuit Clerk Elmus Stockstill, who certified it as genuine. Her arrest warrant was publicized at the time, but it was never served; the Leflore County sheriff told reporters he did not want to "bother" Donham because she had two young children to care for.

Till, 14, of Chicago, was visiting family when he entered a store in Money, Mississippi, where Donham, then 21, was working. She accused Till of making improper advances after he whistled at her, an act considered at the time to be in defiance of the South’s racist social codes.

Emmett Till
Emmett Till.Bettmann Archive via Getty Images file

Evidence indicates a woman, possibly Donham, identified Till to his killers, her husband, Roy Bryant, and another man, J.W. Milam. Although both were acquitted, they later admitted to the killing in a magazine interview. Last year, a federal investigation that re-examined the murder ended after the Justice Department failed to find proof that Donham had lied.

Till’s murder sent shock waves through the nation and helped spur the civil rights movement. His mother insisted on an open casket funeral to show how brutal his killing was.

Donham, who is in her 80s and was most recently living in North Carolina, could not be reached for comment at phone numbers listed for her.