Emmett Till murder: US court reopened the case 63 years later based on 'new information'

The boy had been abducted and murdered in what was considered one of the most shocking examples of racial violence in the South

                            Emmett Till murder: US court reopened the case 63 years later based on 'new information'
(Source:Getty Images)

Emmett Till, the 14-year-old teen whose open casket funeral was termed as the first Black Lives Matter moment, till date remains a victim of most searing racial violence in the South. He was brutally tortured and murdered in 1955. The two white man and prime accused, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were prosecuted by state authorities for the killing but were acquitted by an all-white jury.

It's been 63 years since the day he died, and today, very quietly without bringing too much attention to what is going on, the federal government reopened the investigation into his murder. The African-American boy was abducted and murdered in what was considered one of the most notorious slayings. 

The Justice Department decided to renew the inquiry - "based upon the discovery of new information" - as mentioned in a report that was submitted to the Congress in late March. It is still unclear as to whether the government will be able to bring any charges against anyone. Most of these type of crimes that have been investigated in recent years as a part of an effort from the federal government to re-examine any racially motivated murders have not led to prosecutions or referrals to state authorities.

The Justice Department, however, refrained from commenting on the issue on July 12 but it looks like the government has decided to reinvestigate the case after the key witness, Carolyn Bryant Donham, recanted some parts of her testimony as to what took place in August 1955. The prime accused Carolyn Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother Milam had confessed to killing the boy in an interview with Look magazine. They both are dead now, reported the New York Times.

The Till case has always been a fascinating story for the country, and it made headlines across the nation when photos of his open-casket funeral showed how badly mutilated he was left after his attack. The region is still dotted with cases of racism, and in more recent time, historical markers in connection with this case have been vandalized. Joyce Chiles, a former district attorney in Mississippi who was involved in the mid-2000s review of the case, said: "I don’t think this is something the South is going to forget easily." The review concluded with no new charges brought to the table.

Till's death has stood, for more than 60 years, as a symbol of Southern racism in the country. The teen had been visiting his family in Money, Mississippi, which is deep in the Delta, from Chicago. The boy had gone to a local store that was owned by Carolyn Bryant Donham and her then-husband who ended up being one of the men who finally confessed to the boy's murder. Carolyn alleged that the teen had grabbed her and made sexual advances towards her.

He was kidnapped and killed only days later. His body was fished out of the Tallahatchie River and was found to have been tied up to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire around his neck. This shocking case was the one that birthed the civil rights movement.

Donham's description of what happened that day that led to the brutal attack kept changing repeatedly. In one of her versions, she claimed that teen had verbally abused her. Without any jurors present in the court, she said that Till had made physical contact with her and had spoken to her in crude and sexual language. When she spoke to the FBI later, she said that Till had touched her hand. When she spoke to researcher Timothy B. Tyson in 2008, she agreed that it was "not true" that the teen had grabbed her or made any lewd remarks. She told Dr. Tyson, who published a book about the case in 2017, that "nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him."

The reopening of the Till case will serve as a test for the Justice Department officials, who've been tasked with investigating murders from years ago that were believed to have been racially motivated. According to the department, since 2006 their efforts at solving these cases has led to five successful prosecutions which include that of Edgar Ray Killen, who was involved in the killing of three civil rights workers in Mississippi and who died in prison early in 2018.

In 2010, the department had their last successful prosecution when a former Alabama state trooper was convicted of manslaughter for the death of Jimmi Lee Jackson, a protestor whose murder led to the Selma-Montgomery march.

Prosecutors have faced many challenges, however. Aside from familiar things such as the statute of limitations, the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy and the fact that many people from that time are now dead, any racially motivated attacks that were committed before 1968 can not be prosecuted under a federal hate crimes law.

The Justice Department told Congress earlier this year: "Even with our best efforts, investigations into historic cases are exceptionally difficult, and rarely will justice be reached inside a courtroom." This might end up being true for in this case. The department last launched a review of the case in 2004, but prosecutors have said that the statute of limitation had left them without any charges that they can possibly pursue in a federal court.

After this, the FBI conducted an inquiry which included exhuming Till's body from a cemetery in Illinois. The inquiry lasted for two years and was launched to find out whether there were any state crimes that could still be prosecuted after all these years. Chiles had even presented a case to a grand jury that asked Donham to be charged with manslaughter, but the panel did not come back with any indictments.