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Boy's exhumation may finish a grim history

1st autopsy expected in '55 racial killing

CHICAGO -- Fifty years after the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till shocked a nation and galvanized the civil rights movement, his body will be exhumed as authorities attempt to determine who killed him, the FBI said yesterday.

Till's body, buried in a cemetery in the Chicago suburb of Alsip, will be exhumed within the next few weeks for an autopsy, said Deborah Madden, spokeswoman for the FBI office in Jackson, Miss.

The Justice Department announced plans last year to reopen the Till investigation, citing several pieces of information that included a documentary by New York filmmaker Keith Beauchamp.

''The exhumation is a logical continuation of that," Madden said. ''An autopsy was never performed on the body, and the cause of death was never determined."

Till, who was raised in Chicago, was abducted from his uncle's home in the tiny Mississippi Delta community of Money on Aug. 28, 1955, reportedly for whistling at a white woman at a grocery store. His mutilated body was found by fishermen three days later in the Tallahatchie River. It was unrecognizable, and his mother was able to identify the teenager only because she recognized a ring on his finger.

In Mississippi, District Attorney Joyce Chiles of Greenville said she hopes the autopsy will positively identify Till as well as lead to a cause of death.

During a trial that ultimately led to the acquittal of two men on charges they murdered Till, defense attorneys suggested that the body was not Till's and that Till was still alive.

''If there is a prosecution at the end of this investigation then we hope to dispel any notion that Emmett Till was not murdered," Chiles said.

She also said that because an autopsy was never conducted, there is a chance that some evidence, such as a bullet, is still with the remains. Neither she nor Madden knew why an autopsy was never conducted.

The planned exhumation was applauded by Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, who had urged the Justice Department to reopen the investigation.

''The exhumation of the body of Emmett Till brings the Justice Department investigation to a much higher level," Schumer said in a statement. ''In this rare instance, justice delayed will not be justice denied."

The two white men tried for the murder -- store owner Roy Bryant, the husband of the woman Till purportedly whistled at, and J.W. Milam, Bryant's half brother -- are now deceased. After their acquittal, they confessed in a Look magazine story to beating and shooting Till, saying they killed the teenager because he had whistled at Bryant's wife.

Beauchamp said he had uncovered new evidence in his documentary, ''The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till."

R. Alexander Acosta, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, has said the documentary films and new information indicate the two had accomplices who may still be alive.

Though the five-year statute of limitations in effect in 1955 means no federal charges could be brought, Mississippi state charges could still apply, Acosta said.

The Till case gave many Americans a closer look at the segregated South, its Jim Crow laws, and lynchings. The boy was killed a little over a year after the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed state-sponsored school segregation and about 100 days before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala.

Mamie Till Mobley insisted that her son's mutilated body be displayed in an open casket at his funeral, forcing the nation to see the brutality directed at blacks in the South at the time. Mobley died in 2003 and is buried next to her son.

The case is not the first civil rights era case to be resurrected decades after the crime was committed. In 2003, Earnest Avants was convicted in the 1966 Ku Klux Klan killing of a 67-year-old handyman who was shot to death, possibly to lure Martin Luther King Jr. to the area.

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