A Leflore County grand jury that will be
impaneled in March is expected to take up the 1955 abduction and
killing of Emmett Till.
The Emmett Till Justice Campaign is hoping to take out
advertisements in a local newspaper before that happens, said
president Alvin Sykes of Kansas City.
"We want to encourage grand jurors to listen to the evidence
and follow the law," he said. "If there is enough evidence, they
should indict. If there is not enough evidence, they should not do
it. We don't want them to do the same thing the jury did in 1955."
That's when an all-white jury in Tallahatchie County acquitted
Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam in the murder of Till, only to see the
two men confess their involvement months later to Look magazine.
They since have died of cancer.
This new grand jury could consider kidnapping charges against
Bryant's ex-wife, Carolyn, who has told relatives and the FBI she
Having the grand jury decide is "an idea whose time has come,"
said Till's cousin, Wheeler Parker of Chicago, who was with Till
when he was abducted. "I'm not going to rejoice in somebody's
downfall. I'm not aggressively trying to pursue someone, but you
have to reap what you sow."
The pursuit of possible charges in the case comes at a time when
there's been a renewed focus on crimes of the past. On Jan. 25,
reputed Klansman James Seale of Roxie pleaded innocent to federal
kidnapping and conspiracy charges in connection with the May 2,
1964, abduction and killings of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles
Seale's arrest is the 28th since 1989 in cases resurrected from
the civil rights era. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
A bill introduced in Congress last week would create a cold
cases unit to track down unpunished killings from the civil rights
era. The FBI already is examining 51 killings from that time
period, and a Montgomery museum lists 127 racial killings between
1954 and 1968 - a number it concedes could be much higher.
In 2004, the Justice Department opened an investigation into
Till's slaying. Less than two years later, the FBI turned over its
findings to District Attorney Joyce Chiles of Greenville and
recommended prosecutors take a closer look at Carolyn Bryant, the
key suspect in the case.
On Aug. 28, 1955, Till, a 14-year-old African American from
Chicago, was beaten and shot to death after he reportedly
wolf-whistled at Bryant at a grocery store in Money.
During the wee hours of the morning, Bryant and Milam arrived
with guns at the Leflore County home of Till's uncle, Mose Wright,
and took Till away.
Wright testified that, as the pair left with Till, he heard
someone in the pickup speak with "a lighter voice than men"
identifying Till as "the one." Some have speculated that someone
was Carolyn Bryant.
"He couldn't see who it was, but it may well have been her,"
said David Beito, a University of Alabama history professor who has
researched the case exhaustively with his wife, Linda Royster
Beito, a Stillman College professor.
The theory Carolyn Bryant was there appears to be supported, in
part, by Bryant's and Milam's initial statement. They told Leflore
County Sheriff George Smith they had abducted Till but released him
unharmed after Carolyn Bryant, who was back at the store, told them
Till wasn't the one.
Their claim they released Till unharmed was an obvious lie, but
were they telling the truth when they said they showed Till to her?
Beito said it's difficult to say since no witness positively
identified Carolyn Bryant outside Wright's house. She repeatedly
has denied to the FBI she was there.
The biggest problem facing prosecutors is jurors might not hear
some of these details.
Mississippi court rules permit testimony of dead or unavailable
witnesses, but Mose Wright's 1955 testimony appears to be
inadmissible since Carolyn Bryant wasn't on trial, said Aaron
Condon, professor emeritus for the University of Mississippi School
It's unknown what additional evidence, if any, the FBI has
uncovered in its investigation.
If the FBI found a witness who could put Carolyn Bryant at
Wright's house that night, it might still be difficult to conclude
she committed a crime because it remains unknown whether she
objected to what was taking place or encouraged it, Condon said.
"To get beyond reasonable doubt will be one hellacious trip."
One other possibility, legal experts say, would be if the FBI
found someone whom Carolyn Bryant had confided in regarding her
role, if any.
Some details in the case could assist her defense. The Look
article says Roy Bryant learned of the wolf-whistle days later from
a black customer, not his ex-wife.
Among defense lawyers, a common expression is a district
attorney wields so much influence among grand jurors he could get
them to indict a ham sandwich.
"My experience is grand juries are not as pliable as people
think they are," said Condon, a former prosecutor in Attala
In one case, grand jurors indicted when he didn't want them to,
he said. "The result was an immediate acquittal. They didn't take
time to smoke a cigarette."
Chiles rejects talk that prosecutors exert that kind of
influence on a grand jury.
That's not what she likes to use grand juries for anyway, she
said. "If the evidence is there, we expect a grand jury to return
an indictment. If it isn't, we wouldn't encourage a grand jury to
She plans to share all the information gathered in the Till
investigation with grand jurors, she said. "We wouldn't hold