(Reuters) – The U.S. government on Monday said it failed to prove a crucial witness lied 66 years ago in the lynching death of Black teen Emmett Till in Mississippi, closing without charges its probe into the killing that helped ignite the civil rights movement.
The Justice Department had reopened its investigation into the case in 2018 after publication of the book “The Blood of Emmett Till” by Duke University Professor Timothy Tyson.
In it, Tyson said Carolyn Bryant Donham, a white woman who testified at a 1955 trial that 14-year-old Till touched her and made sexual advances, had recanted to him in a 2008 interview and said parts of her testimony were not true.
But after looking again at the case, the Justice Department found insufficient evidence to prove that Donham had “ever told the professor that any part of her testimony was untrue,” it said on Monday.
Tyson told Reuters in an email that he was not recording Donham when she recanted but was taking careful notes. He said he stood by his work. Donham could not be located.
“In closing this matter without prosecution, the government does not take the position that the state court testimony the woman gave in 1955 was truthful or accurate,” the Justice Department said.
“There remains considerable doubt as to the credibility of her version of events, which is contradicted by others who were with Till at the time, including the account of a living witness.”
Till, visiting from Chicago, was beaten, shot and mutilated in Money, Mississippi, four days after Donham, then 20, accused him of whistling at her. Later, the woman added the accusation that Till grabbed her waist and made sexual remarks.
Donham’s husband at the time, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, were charged with Till’s murder, but the two white men were later acquitted of the crime by an all-white jury.
The pair later confessed in a paid magazine interview to abducting and killing the teenager. The two men have since died, in 1994 and 1981, respectively.
Till’s relatives expressed sadness at the new developments.
“Even though we do not feel we got justice, we must move forward,” Ollie Gordon, Till’s cousin, said at a news conference in Chicago. “Let’s figure out how we can continue to make a change.”
The decision by Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to hold an open-casket funeral showing her son’s tortured body helped launch the civil rights movement. Images of Till’s body in his casket were published in Black media outlets at the time but not in the mainstream press.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Donna Bryson and Cynthia Osterman)