Members of Emmett Till grand jury speak

Published: Oct. 6, 2007 at 10:02 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 15, 2007 at 7:50 PM CDT
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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

1955 murder.

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

barbed wire.

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

in 1994.

"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

not there."

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

was kidnapped.

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

coming from."

"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."