Justice Department Closes Emmett Till Investigation Without Charges

ATLANTA — The Justice Department announced on Monday that it had closed an investigation into the abduction and murder of Emmett Till, the African American teenager whose gruesome killing by two white men more than six decades ago in Mississippi helped begin the civil rights movement.

In a news release dated Dec. 6, federal officials said there was not enough evidence to pursue charges in the case, which was reopened after a historian claimed in a book that Carolyn Bryant Donham, the central witness whose account of an encounter with Emmett led to his death, had recanted the most salacious portions of her story — that he had grabbed her and made sexually suggestive remarks.

Citing the statute of limitations and Ms. Donham’s denial that she had ever changed her story, the Justice Department said it could not move forward with prosecuting her for perjury.

During a moment of the trial in which jurors were not present, Ms. Donham claimed that the teenager had made sexually vulgar comments toward her and physical contact. But in a book published in 2017, “The Blood of Emmett Till” by Timothy B. Tyson, the author wrote that Ms. Donham had recanted her testimony in a 2008 interview, saying that the earlier stories she told were “not true.”

“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Mr. Tyson, a researcher and historian at Duke University, quoted Ms. Donham as saying in the book.

Mr. Tyson’s claim generated outrage and renewed calls for the case to be reopened. Kristen Clarke, who leads the Justice Department’s civil rights division, delivered the news to the family in person that the case was formally closed.

In a statement on Monday, the Justice Department said Mr. Tyson, despite saying he had recorded two interviews with Ms. Donham, provided just one recording to the F.B.I. that did not contain a recantation.

Mr. Tyson has said that although he did not record Ms. Donham’s recantation, he took detailed notes.

“Carolyn started spilling the beans before I got the recorder going. I documented her words carefully,” Mr. Tyson said in an email on Monday, adding, “My reporting is rock solid.”

At a news conference in Chicago on Monday afternoon, Emmett’s family members said they were disappointed by the result of the investigation but were not surprised.

“I did not expect that they would have found any new evidence,” said Ollie Gordon, one of Emmett’s cousins, adding, “I ask where do we go from here.”

The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett’s cousin and best friend who was in the Mississippi Delta house when Emmett was kidnapped in the middle of the night, said the conclusion of the investigation marked the end of a painful 66 years for Emmett’s loved ones.

“Today is a day that we will never forget,” he said. “For 66 years we have suffered pain for his loss, and I suffered tremendously because of the way that they painted him.”

Ms. Donham, 87, has rarely spoken publicly about the case. Her former husband and another man confessed to Emmett’s murder, though the confessions came after they were acquitted by an all-white jury. Both men are dead.

In the summer of 1955, 14-year-old Emmett traveled from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta to visit relatives. One day in August, he walked into a store in Money, Miss., run by Ms. Donham and her husband, Roy Bryant, to buy candy. Accounts vary about what happened, but a witness said that Emmett whistled at Ms. Donham.

Days later, Mr. Bryant and his half brother abducted, tortured and shot the teenager. Then they tied a 75-pound cotton gin fan around his neck and tossed his body into a river. His corpse, broken, battered and mutilated, was retrieved from the water on the last day of August.

Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, insisted on an open coffin for the funeral and allowed photographs to be published in Jet magazine — ensuring that “the whole nation had to bear witness” to what is considered among the worst hate crimes of the 20th century.

Despite the passage of time and the civil rights movement, Emmett’s death has never faded from public memory. It has often been invoked as an enduring symbol of deep, unbridled racism. Historic markers erected at sites connected to his death have repeatedly been vandalized. The marker near the river where his body was found has been replaced at least three times because it has been vandalized and damaged by bullets.

“Mississippi has never escaped the story of Emmett Till and nor should it,” said Susan Glisson, who worked with the town of Sumner, Miss., which issued a public apology and formed the Emmett Till Memorial Commission.

In closing its investigation, the Justice Department said that Ms. Donham denied ever recanting her earlier testimony. In 2018, Ms. Donham’s daughter-in-law, Marsha Holley Bryant, who was present for the interviews with Mr. Tyson, said that Ms. Donham never recanted.

Reached by phone on Monday, Ms. Holley Bryant said she had no comment. Other relatives of Ms. Donham did not respond to several requests for comment.

Before the current investigation, federal officials last revisited the case in 2004. They closed it two years later after prosecutors determined that the statute of limitations kept them from pursuing additional federal charges. As part of that inquiry, Emmett’s body was exhumed.

The latest investigation was part of the Justice Department’s larger review of cases believed to be motivated by racial hatred. Over the past 15 years, the department has led several successful investigations, including the prosecution of Edgar Ray Killen. Mr. Killen, who died in prison about four years ago, was a former Klansman who arranged the murders of three civil workers in Mississippi in 1964.

“Cold cases never close,” said Keith Beauchamp, a filmmaker and producer of “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” and the upcoming film “Till.”

“There still may be a way,” he continued, “to revisit one of the greatest injustices committed upon a child in American history.”

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