JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A team searched the basement of a Mississippi courthouse for evidence of the lynching of black teenager Emmett Till has unserved warrant suing a white woman for his 1955 kidnapping, and relatives of the victim who started the hunt want authorities to finally arrest her nearly 70 years later.
An arrest warrant for Carolyn Bryant Donham — identified as “Mrs. Roy Bryant” on the document — was discovered last week in a file folder placed in a box, Leflore County Circuit Clerk Elmus Stockstill told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Documents are kept in boxes for ten years, he said, but there was nothing else to indicate where the warrant, dated August 29, 1955, might have been.
“They narrowed it down between the 50s and 60s and were lucky,” Stockstill said, declaring the order genuine.
The search was started by the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation and involved two members of: Till’s family: Cousin Deborah Watts, Head of the Foundation; and her daughter, Teri Watts. They want authorities to use the warrant to arrest Donham, who at the time of the murder was married to one of two white men who were tried and acquitted just weeks after Till was abducted from a relative’s home, murdered and was dumped in a river.
“Serve it and charge her,” Teri Watts told the AP in an interview.
Donham started the case in August 1955 by accusing 14-year-old Till of making inappropriate advances at a family store in Money, Mississippi. A cousin of Till who was there said that Till whistled at the woman, which violated the racist social codes of the time in Mississippi.
There is evidence that a woman, possibly Donham, identified Till to the men who later killed him. The warrant for Donham’s arrest was published at the time, but the Leflore County sheriff told reporters he didn’t want to “harass” the woman because she had two young children to care for.
Now in her 80s and most recently living in North Carolina, Donham has not publicly responded to calls for her prosecution. But Teri Watts said the Till family believes the warrant to charge Donham with kidnapping is new evidence.
“This is what the state of Mississippi needs to keep going,” she said.
District attorney Dewayne Richardson, whose office would prosecute a case, declined to comment on the warrant, citing one: December report about the Justice Department’s Till case, which said prosecution was not possible.
Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks was approached by the AP on Wednesday and said, “This is the first time I know of a warrant.”
Banks, who was seven years old when Till was killed, said “nothing was said about a warrant” when a former prosecutor investigated the case five or six years ago.
“I’ll see if I can get a copy of the warrant and talk to the DA to get their opinion on it,” Banks said. If the warrant can still be served, Banks said, he should talk to law enforcement in the state where Donham lives.
Arrest warrants can become “outdated” with the passage of time and changing circumstances, and a 1955 arrest warrant would almost certainly not make it to court even if a sheriff agreed to serve it, said Ronald J. Rychlak, a professor of law enforcement. law at the University of Mississippi.
But combined with any new evidencethe original arrest warrant could “definitely” be an important stepping stone toward establishing a likely cause for a new prosecution, he said.
“If you went to court, you could say, ‘Once upon a time there was a judge who determined there was a probable cause, and there’s a lot more information available today,'” Rychlak said.
Till, who was from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he entered the store where Donham, then 21, worked on August 24, 1955. A relative of Till who was there at the time, Wheeler Parker, told AP that Till whistled at the woman. Donham testified in court that Till grabbed her too and made a lewd comment.
Two nights later, Donham’s then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, JW Milam, turned up armed at the rural home of Till’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, in Leflore County, in search of the boy. Till’s violent body, weighted down by a fan, was pulled from a river days later in another province. His mother’s decision to open the coffin so that mourners in Chicago could see what had happened helped spark the civil rights movement of the time.
Bryant and Milam were acquitted of murder, but later admitted the murder in a magazine interview. Although both men were named in the same arrest warrant that charged Donham with kidnapping, authorities have not pursued the case after their acquittal.
Wright testified at the murder trial that a person with a voice “lighter” than a man’s identified Till from a pickup truck and the kidnappers took him from the family home. Other evidence in FBI files indicates that Donham told her husband earlier that same night that at least two other black men were not the right person.
Reeves reported from Newnan, Georgia.