Grand jury to probe Till murder case

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

is innocent.

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

Eddie Moore.

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

of Law.

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

anything back."