JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A team searching the basement of a Mississippi courthouse for evidence concerning the lynching of Black teenager Emmett Till has found the unserved warrant charging a white woman in his 1955 kidnapping, and relatives of the victim who initiated the hunt want authorities to finally arrest her nearly 70 years later.
A warrant for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant Donham — identified as “Mrs. Roy Bryant” on the document — was discovered last week inside a file folder that had been placed in a box, Leflore County Circuit Clerk Elmus Stockstill told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Documents are kept inside boxes by decade, he said, but there was nothing else to point where the warrant, dated Aug. 29, 1955, might need been.
“They narrowed it down between the ’50s and ’60s and got lucky,” said Stockstill, who certified the warrant as real.
The search was began by the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation and included two members of Till’s family: Cousin Deborah Watts, head of the Foundation; and her daughter, Teri Watts. They need authorities to make use of the warrant to arrest Donham, who on the time of the slaying was married to certainly one of two white men tried and acquitted just weeks after Till was abducted from a relative’s home, killed and dumped right into a river.
“Serve it and charge her,” Teri Watts told the AP in an interview.
Donham set off the case in August 1955 by accusing the 14-year-old Till of constructing improper advances at a family store in Money, Mississippi. A cousin of Till who was there has said Till whistled at the girl, which flew within the face of Mississippi’s racist social codes of the era.
Evidence indicates a girl, possibly Donham, identified Till to the boys who later killed him. The arrest warrant against Donham was publicized on the time, however the Leflore County sheriff told reporters he didn’t wish to “hassle” the girl since she had two young children to take care of.
Now in her 80s and most recently living in North Carolina, Donham has not commented publicly on calls for her prosecution. But Teri Watts said the Till family believes the warrant accusing Donham of kidnapping amounts to latest evidence.
“That is what the state of Mississippi must go ahead,” she said.
District Attorney Dewayne Richardson, whose office would prosecute a case, declined comment on the warrant but cited a December report concerning the Till case from the Justice Department, which said no prosecution was possible.
Contacted by the AP on Wednesday, Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks said: “That is the primary time I’ve known a couple of warrant.”
Banks, who was 7 years old when Till was killed, said “nothing was said a couple of warrant” when a former district attorney investigated the case 5 – 6 years ago.
“I’ll see if I can get a duplicate of the warrant and get with the DA and get their opinion on it,” Banks said. If the warrant can still be served, Banks said, he would need to consult with law enforcement officers within the state where Donham resides.
Arrest warrants can “go stale” as a result of the passage of time and changing circumstances, and one from 1955 almost actually wouldn’t pass muster before a court, even when a sheriff agreed to serve it, said Ronald J. Rychlak, a law professor on the University of Mississippi.
But combined with any latest evidence, the unique arrest warrant “absolutely” might be a vital stepping stone toward establishing probable cause to initiate a latest prosecution, he said.
“Should you went in front of a judge you would say, ‘Once upon a time a judge determined there was probable cause, and rather more information is on the market today,’” Rychlak said.
Till, who was from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he entered the shop where Donham, then 21, was working on Aug. 24, 1955. A Till relative who was there on the time, Wheeler Parker, told AP that Till whistled at the girl. Donham testified in court that Till also grabbed her and made a lewd comment.
Two nights later, Donham’s then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, showed up armed at the agricultural Leflore County home of Till’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, searching for the youth. Till’s brutalized body, weighted down by a fan, was pulled from a river days later in one other county. His mother’s decision to open the casket so mourners in Chicago could see what had happened helped galvanize the constructing civil rights movement of the time.
Bryant and Milam were acquitted of murder but later admitted the killing in a magazine interview. While each men were named in the identical warrant that accused Donham of kidnapping, authorities didn’t pursue the case following their acquittal.
Wright testified in the course of the murder trial that an individual with a voice “lighter” than a person’s identified Till from inside a pickup truck and the abductors took him away from the family home. Other evidence in FBI files indicates that earlier that very same night, Donham told her husband that a minimum of two other Black men weren’t the precise person.
Reeves reported from Newnan, Georgia.