By Herb Boyd
If Deborah Watts and family, Jaribu Hill, and Keith Beauchamp have their way and say, the case of the brutal lynching of Emmett Till will never be closed until justice is done. Last year, for the second time, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it was closing the case on one of the most horrific acts of racial violence in American history. But Watts, Till’s cousin and a co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation; Hill, counsel to the family, and Beauchamp, a filmmaker and documentarian, have kept a foot in the door, and they refuse to accept the DOJ’s decision to close the case.
During a phone call and subsequent email, Watts explained that the search for the warrant was conducted by a devoted team, including her daughter, Teri, Khali Rasheed, Melissa Earnest, and Mr. Beauchamp. “This effort began with Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, and we intensified our families efforts after the DOJ reopened the investigation in 2017,” she said. “After receiving no updates, we launched the Justice for Emmett Till campaign in 2020 to request charges be brought against the only known living accomplice, Carolyn Bryant-Donham.”
Their resolve and diligence was recently rewarded when they were able to find a warrant issued 67 years ago for the arrest of Roy Bryant, J.W. Milam, Bryant’s half-brother, and Carolyn Bryant in the kidnapping of Till, who was a 14-year-old from Chicago visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi. “A warrant never expires,” said attorney Hill, in a telephone interview Monday afternoon, “and they never arrested her because they said she was a young woman with children.”
The two men cited on the warrant are dead, but the woman, now Carolyn Bryant-Donham, is still alive, in her 80s, and rumored to be living somewhere in North Carolina. Both Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-white male jury and later confessed they murdered Till to author William Bradford Huie for a payment of $4,000. The story was published in Look magazine in January 1956.
“That lay people were able to find the warrant in the archives of the Leflore County Courthouse is a testament of their determination to keep this case alive,” said Hill, who at the request of Beauchamp was retained by the late Simeon Wright to represent the family. Wright was sleeping in the bed with Till when he was abducted. “It also underscores the failure of the law enforcement agencies to do what they should have been doing.” She was perturbed that even after the family presented a copy of the warrant and a letter to District Attorney DeWayne Richardson and the Department of Justice, “They have not given us the courtesy of a response. But that’s no surprise.”
If a determined team of citizens and relatives of Till can do a deep dive and find incriminating evidence, Watts said: “What other kind of evidence might be buried in LeFlore County where no one had searched before?” The AmNews’ calls to the DA and the DOJ were not answered.
District Attorney Richardson, according to Beauchamp whose documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” (2005) intensified interest in the case that was renewed in 2004 “just passed the information on to the DOJ. He continues to pass the buck to the Feds and not do the job he needs to be doing. All we are asking the DA to do is…to convene a new grand jury to hear the case.”
Dale Killinger, a retired former FBI agent who has worked on the case for years, said he concurs with the family, Beauchamp and attorney Hill, “That any and all new evidence should be afforded the routine process of being presented to a Grand Jury. The fact that law enforcement had probable cause in 1955 to believe that Carolyn Bryant was involved in Till’s kidnapping, a kidnapping which led to his murder, is new information.”
Moreover, Killinger added in an email, “This is not the only new information which has surfaced since I presented the results of the FBI’s 2004-2006 investigation to a Mississippi Grand Jury in 2007, and they returned a No Bill. We also now know that Carolyn Bryant admitted to her attorneys in 1955 that Emmett Till was brought to her in the night—which corroborates information presented to the Grand Jury in 2007.
“The kidnapping occurred,” he continued, “and Donham was likely with the kidnappers or assisted the kidnappers, as the newly discovered warrant indicates there was probable cause to believe so. She admitted to her attorneys that Till was brought to the store, she admitted to the FBI that Roy Bryant, J.W. Milam and Elmer Kimbell brought him to the store. The only purpose for bringing Emmett Till to the store, or for her being with the kidnappers, would have been for her to identify him. He was subsequently murdered.”
But the discovery of new information, as in the past, is no guarantee that the Till case will be put on the docket. Even after Bryant allegedly confessed to Timothy Tyson, the author of “The Blood of Emmett Till,” that Till had not assaulted her and what she said during the trial was not the truth and then later told the FBI she never recanted her testimony, the case was never reopened. “She was lying then and probably lying now,” Hill said. “You have a woman sleeping with a man who was a racist, and it’s hard to believe that she wasn’t just as racist as he was.” No evidence was ever revealed about Bryant-Donham’s recantation.
Keith Beauchamp, who has expended many years researching the Till murder case, elaborated on it, noting that the FBI had done a thorough investigation, “but they were always fighting over jurisdiction [which may be a dual one since the Feds are involved]…and we were so focused on the murder that we didn’t spend a lot of time looking closer into the kidnapping.” Even so, he added, “It’s going to be interesting to see how he [the DA] wiggles his way out of executing a warrant which is still active. They’re going to come up with everything and the kitchen sink, not to serve it.”
Since the kidnapping that is at the core of a warrant that never expires a number of legal options are still on the table, most importantly the arrest of Mrs. Bryant-Donham who remains a fugitive from justice.
“Our family, without malice, hate or vengeance, remains focused and hopeful that at the very least this physical warrant is considered as evidence, is executed legally and finally served in 2022. Carolyn Bryant-Donham or the former Mrs. Roy Bryant is alive and well. We have done our job as a family including justice advocates and ambassadors, now we expect the State of Mississippi, with the help of the DOJ to do theirs…no excuses,” Watts concluded.