The half-century search for justice in
the murder of Emmett Till petered out last February when a Leflore
County grand jury declined to indict Carolyn Donham on criminal
"There is nobody left to indict," said Greg Watkins, one of 19
members from the grand jury. "It will be debated forever probably,
but there is no one left living to send to jail."
Donham, 73 and living in Greenville, was the centerpiece of the
investigation conducted by federal and state authorities into the
Members of the grand jury say that no one on the panel last
February thought an indictment was in order.
"We all realized that this lady is 70 years old-plus, and no
one really knows for sure how much she was involved," said Gary
Woody. "I think (Donham) knows, but there is so much that we just
don't know for sure."
Donham is the white shopkeeper at whom Till, a 14-year-old from
Chicago who was in Mississippi visiting Delta relatives,
wolf-whistled outside of Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market.
Some grand jury members said that they even heard evidence
suggesting that the whistle came from an excited group of children
playing checkers on the store's front porch. Whatever transpired at
the store in Money on Aug. 24, 1955, Till paid for it with his life
four days later.
His brutal murder helped galvanize the American civil rights
movement and has been a subject of constant fascination for
journalists, filmmakers and historians. But despite the U.S.
Justice Department's reopening of the Till case in 2004, the many
cries for legal reckoning go unsatisfied.
"That's 50 to 55 years ago. It's hard to put something together
when it was that long ago," said George Smith III, another member
of the jury. "You can sit and 'what-if' all day long, but when you
stick to the facts, there was just nothing there."
Roy Bryant, Donham's then-husband, and his half brother, J.W.
Milam, were acquitted of murdering Till less than a month after his
mutilated body - wrists broken, teeth and eyes missing, a bullet
wound in his skull - was pulled out of the Tallahatchie River. The
body had been weighted down with a cotton gin fan, attached by
Roughly four months after the duo's acquittal, doled out by a
jury of 12 white males in Tallahatchie County, Bryant and Milam
admitted to the slaying in a Look magazine article.
Neither one ever spent a night in jail in connection with the
murder. They have both since died of cancer: Milam in 1981, Bryant
"They did show us proof that Bryant and Milam were involved,"
said Smith, who is the warehouse manager at Upchurch Plumbing.
"They had found evidence of Till's blood somewhere that proved
their involvement. But proof that (Donham) was involved was just
The grand jury - seven men, 12 women, divided almost evenly
along racial lines - was asked to consider charges against Donham
of murder, manslaughter or kidnapping.
Speaking now, with the mandatory six-month gag order passed,
jurors say the accusation against Donham - that she identified Till
the night he was murdered - was heavy on hearsay, but light on hard
facts and physical evidence.
"She didn't murder Till. That's understood," said Watkins.
"And they couldn't prove that she was even there" the night Till
During the FBI probe, reports surfaced that Henry Lee Loggins,
one of Milam's black farmhands, was also being investigated for his
possible role in the murder. Watkins said, however, that the grand
jury was not asked to consider charges against Loggins, who at 84
lives in Ohio with a sister.
"The only real possibility of indictment was with Carolyn
Donham," Watkins said.
Till was abducted in the dead of night from the home of his
great-uncle, Mose Wright, a Leflore County sharecropper. The crux
of the claim that Donham was somehow involved spun around a report
that when Till was rustled out of bed, a "small voice" was heard
coming from inside the vehicle that took Till away.
"According to the uncle he was staying with, there was another
voice coming out of the truck that said, 'He's the one,"' said
Otis Johnson, another member of the jury. "That's where it all was
"We asked one another, 'Did y'all hear anything that would put
her in that truck?" said Smith. "No one really did."
Almeda Luckey, 55, was also a member of the jury.
"Working with just the facts that they gave us, I couldn't go
on and indict (Donham)," said Luckey. "They said a soft voice
came out of the truck. But they didn't prove to me that she was
there when he was taken away."
Grand jury members said they were unaware until breaking for
lunch on Feb. 22 that they were going to be presented with the Till
case. They listened to prosecutors lay out the evidence for most of
an afternoon, then chewed on their decision for just over an hour.
Woody said that the closest the group ever came to a tiff was
when a black female juror said, "Somebody should pay."
"I said, 'Not just anybody.' I mean you don't just send whoever
to jail so you can say that someone is paying," said Woody, a
white businessman. "The fact is, there is no way to know for sure
if she was in that car. And if she was, the question is, was she
there on her own free will?"
Luckey said that the group was presented with facts proving that
Donham was not at the scene of the actual murder.
"With that, I felt like there was nothing we could do."
Johnson said that when Leflore County District Attorney Joyce
Chiles, with the help of two or three investigators, began
presenting the case, he felt as if there would be enough evidence
to indict Donham.
"But the way they presented it, the further they went along,
everything it seemed that pointed to her crumbled," Johnson said.
The 47-year-old black stockhandler said that Chiles was under
pressure to "go through the motions" of seeking an indictment.
"I'll say this. I feel like the district attorney used us as
scapegoats. To me it seems like they just wanted to put on a show
and go through the process to make people happy."
Luckey, though, does not agree. He said Chiles simply presented
the facts, and let the chips fall.
"We just didn't have any evidence that put (Donham) at the
scene when they picked (Till) up," she said. "That was the bottom
Chiles, the outgoing district attorney, denies that she or any
of the investigators tried to sway the jury not to indict.
"As a matter of fact, if anything, I feel like the investigator
tried to persuade them toward an indictment," she said.
Grand jurors were presented with several possible charges, said
Chiles, the first black to serve as district attorney in the county
from which Till was abducted.
"Manslaughter certainly was an option," said Chiles, 53. "We
tried everything, from felony manslaughter, to manslaughter in the
heat of passion, to criminal negligence manslaughter. But no matter
what we tried, there was always one or more elements of the crime
which were not met."
Watkins, 38, who works for the Mississippi State Tax Commission,
said that the jury made the correct call in opting not to indict.
"We got it right," he said. "Anybody who sat in there with us
would have reached the same conclusion - no matter which side of
the aisle you sit on."
The Greenwood Commonwealth said it was able to contact 13 of the
19 grand jury members. Eight declined to be interviewed.
"I'd rather not," said Denise Denton. "It was painful enough
having to sit in there and hear all of that."