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End of Till case draws mixed response

An undated portrait of Emmett Louis Till, a black 14 year old Chicago boy, whose weighted down body was found in the Tallahatchie River near the Delta community of Money, Mississippi, August 31, 1955. Local residents Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were accused of kidnapping, torturing and murdering Till for allegedly whistling at Bryant's wife, but were later acquitted in 1955. The district attorney in rural Leflore County, Miss. had sought a manslaughter charge against Carolyn Bryant Donham, who was suspected of pointing out to her husband to punish the boy, but a grand jury has refused to bring any new charges. No one has ever been convicted in the slaying. An undated portrait of Emmett Louis Till, a black 14 year old Chicago boy, whose weighted down body was found in the Tallahatchie River near the Delta community of Money, Mississippi, August 31, 1955. Local residents Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were accused of kidnapping, torturing and murdering Till for allegedly whistling at Bryant's wife, but were later acquitted in 1955. The district attorney in rural Leflore County, Miss. had sought a manslaughter charge against Carolyn Bryant Donham, who was suspected of pointing out to her husband to punish the boy, but a grand jury has refused to bring any new charges. No one has ever been convicted in the slaying. (AP Photo)

Even as the U.S. Department of Justice was announcing a fresh look at unsolved civil rights-era killings around the South, a Mississippi Delta prosecutor was closing the books on perhaps the most notorious of those cold cases -- the brutal 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

To some, the Leflore County grand jury's decision not to return an indictment in the case following an exhaustive three-year federal investigation was a sign that not much has changed in Mississippi in the last 52 years.

But others, including the prosecutor herself, felt it showed the opposite -- a maturing of racial justice in this part of the South.

"It would have been very easy for that grand jury to have returned a true bill based solely on emotion and the rage they felt. And I commend them for not doing that," says Joyce Chiles, the black district attorney who directed the case in which the grand jury declined to charge 73-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham -- the object of Till's infamous wolf whistle.

If the grand jurors had acted on the basis of hate, not evidence, Chiles says, that would have been more like the Jim Crow justice of 1955.

"I didn't feel good toward her; I still don't feel good toward her," says Chiles, who grew up on a plantation not far from the spot where Till's bloated, ravaged body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River. But as the prosecutor who laid out the file for the grand jury, she had to acknowledge that the evidence to indict was just not there.

"We are justice seekers and not head hunters," Chiles says. "And If I were to follow the law and the evidence as it was presented, I would have had to have returned a no bill."

Since 1989, officials in Mississippi and six other states had won convictions in nearly two dozen civil-rights era cases that most had considered stone cold. The decision in the Till case was revealed Tuesday, the same day U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez announced the reopening of about a dozen cold cases; he did not reveal which cases they are.

To many, Till was the "sacrificial lamb" of the civil rights movement. And so when federal officials reopened the case in 2004, his family and others had high hopes that someone would at last be made to pay for killing the boy whose defiled, river-ravaged face helped galvanize mass opposition to Southern segregation.

In August 1955, Till left Chicago to spend the summer with his great uncle Mose "Preacher" Wright in the cotton crossroads town of Money.

Late that month, "Bobo" and some other kids went to the Bryant Grocery & Meat Market, across the Money Road from the "colored" school, to buy candy and pink-iced "stage plank" cookies. Simeon Wright and his cousin had just stepped outside when Emmett let out that whistle.

Wright was sharing a bed with Emmett two nights later when a car pulled up outside the family's house. Half-brothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam appeared with flashlights and pistols, and announced they'd come to see "the boy who had done all the talking."

The men ordered Emmett to dress, then led him outside. Mose Wright would later testify that he heard a light voice from inside the vehicle, like that of a woman, say they had the right one.

Three days after Emmett's disappearance, his body was found in the Tallahatchie, a gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His left eye was missing, as were most of his teeth; his nose was crushed, and there was a hole in his right temple.

As many as 100,000 people filed past Till's open casket during a four-day public viewing in Chicago. A graphic photo of his mangled face in Jet magazine helped stoke the nation's outrage and fuel the civil rights movement.

In 1955, an all-white Tallahatchie County jury took just 67 minutes to acquit Bryant and Milam of killing the 14-year-old for having the audacity to whistle at a white woman. It wouldn't have taken that long, one juror quipped, if they "hadn't stopped to drink pop ..."

The details of Till's gruesome lynching and the farcical trial were still ringing in Rosa Parks' ears on Dec. 1, 1955, when she decided to defy Southern custom by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white passenger.

Even after Bryant and Milam confessed to the killing in a 1956 interview with Look magazine, the federal government failed to move. The two died without ever seeing the inside of a prison cell, and many thought that was the end.

But the case was reopened in 2004, due in large part to the efforts of New York filmmaker Keith Beauchamp.

Beauchamp had seen the Jet magazine photo when he was 10, and the image had haunted him. He used the money his parents had set aside for his education and began looking into the case.

The filmmaker compiled a list of at least 14 people -- black and white -- he felt had some role in the kidnapping, beating and slaying. He went to the authorities with the names of five people who were still alive, including the former Mrs. Bryant.

During the original trial, the defense cynically suggested that the body buried in Chicago was not even that of Till -- that the NAACP had dumped a cadaver from a black hospital in the river and hidden Till away. To put those rumors to rest, federal officials exhumed the body in 2005 and confirmed it was Till's.

The FBI amassed an 8,000-page file during its investigation but determined that the statutes of limitations had run out on all possible federal crimes. The agency turned the file over to Chiles, with a recommendation that she take a close look at Donham.

Roy Bryant denied at the time that his wife came along on the abduction, and no one has come forward who claims to have actually seen her at the Wright home.

Last month, Chiles presented the case to grand jurors in Leflore County, where a grand jury back in 1956 failed to indict Bryant and Milam for kidnapping, despite their confessions. The new, racially-mixed grand jury was to consider a charge of manslaughter.

Simeon Wright was devastated by the panel's decision, but not really surprised.

"They came up with this 50 years ago," Wright, 64, says from his home in Chicago, the city to which his family fled after his father testified against Bryant and Milam. "Some of the people haven't changed from 50 years ago. Same attitude. The evidence speaks for itself."

Beauchamp was outraged.

"I strongly believe that we should have gotten an indictment in that case," he says. "I know a lot of the things that we came across, and I'm questioning now how the case went in the grand jury, what was presented."

But journalist and author Juan Williams is not persuaded. "You have a mostly black (grand) jury, a black prosecutor. I mean, I don't know what he wants," Williams says. "It's not as if this has been a whitewash by any means."

Williams, author of "Eyes on the Prize" and other works on the civil rights movement, agrees with Chiles that bringing a weak case against Donham would have been just another injustice.

"I think the two guilty parties are dead," says Williams, a senior correspondent with National Public Radio. "You can't go back and revise history to your liking because you now live in a more enlightened era. Clearly, if we had time travel available to us, we could go back and rectify the misdeeds of the past. But to try to do it in this way strikes me as vindictive, and I think that's apparently the judgment of the grand jury."

David Beito, a University of Alabama history professor who has done extensive research on the Till case, says Beauchamp raised "a lot of false expectations" for a broad prosecution in this case -- perhaps to the detriment of other cold cases.

"I think that there are many unsolved cases that could have been opened and led to successful prosecutions," says Beito, who is working with his wife Joyce on a biography of civil rights leader and Till family protector T.R.M. Howard. "I wish I could say that the Till case was one of them. Unfortunately, all the uncritical coverage of Keith has tended to detract from those cases which are cold, and getting colder every day."

Williams sympathizes with Simeon Wright, "because he is on the right side of history now." But to start punishing people "who are distant to the actual crime is not about justice, it's about satisfying some blood thirst. And that's what got us in this problem in the first place."

"I am very sorry that he feels that way," Chiles, the prosecutor, says of Wright. "I personally feel that a lot has changed.

"Men's hearts and attitudes have changed over time. This was a very intelligent grand jury, and a good grand jury. They looked at all the evidence that was presented and considered it, and I do respect their decision."

Beauchamp says the government should release the entire investigative file, so the public and historians can see for themselves whether justice was done in this case. He says he'll push for a congressional review if he has to.

But if those files do become public, it won't be from Chiles' office. And unless some startling new evidence comes to light, Chiles says the Emmett Till case is essentially closed.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Allen G. Breed is based in Raleigh, N.C.

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