The Justice Department officially closed its investigation into the 1955 killing of Chicago teen Emmett Till on Monday, after failing to prove that the key witness lied on the stand over 60 years ago. This is the second time an inquiry into the gruesome lynching has resulted in no federal charges.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division launched an investigation after author Timothy Tyson revealed in 2017 that Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman who accused Till of making a sexual pass at her, actually recanted her testimony, CNN reports.
Witnesses claimed that Till whistled at Donham at a grocery store she ran with her husband that fateful day in Mississippi. A then 20-year-old Donham testified in 1955 that 14-year-old Till, who was visiting family that summer, grabbed her by the hand and waist and told her he had been with “white women before.” Tyson claimed that during an interview in 2008, Donham told him that part didn’t actually happen.
During the investigation, Donham denied that she changed her story and Tyson’s story also became inconsistent, causing investigators to close the inquiry.
The most damning statements Tyson attributed to Donham were not recorded or transcribed, and he gave authorities inconsistent statements on whether a recording had ever been made, the department said. Tyson took some notes of their conversation, but he did not provide a firm timeline of when her confession reportedly happened.
“These facts would preclude the government from proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that (Donham) recanted her previous testimony when speaking with Tyson, and therefore that she lied to the FBI when she denied having done so,” the department wrote Monday, taking care to note that DOJ lawyers were not suggesting they necessarily credited her original story.
“There remains considerable doubt as to the credibility of (Donham’s) original account of what happened inside the store,” the DOJ memo went on to explain.
However, “there is no witness the government could now call to disprove her account.”
When reached for comment via email, Tyson provided a lengthy statement, standing by his story.
“My reporting is rock solid,” Tyson said in a statement to CNN. “Carolyn Bryant denies it and avoids talking about it like it was the plague. I am standing in the public square telling the truth as I see it based on solid evidence.”
The men who beat, shot and killed Till, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, Donham’s then husband, were found not guilty by an all-male, all-white jury after just over an hour of deliberations. They both later confessed to the killing in a Look magazine interview. Both men along with many other witnesses have died, but the picture of Till’s brutalized body published in a 1955 Jet magazine issue still haunts the social justice fight today.
“We cannot stop even though we don’t feel that we got justice,” Ollie Gordon, one of Till’s cousins, said according to CNN. “We still must move forward so that these particular hate crimes will not continue to be done and no justice is found.”
There was a previous federal investigation in 2004, according to NBC News and a grand jury inquiry proved unsuccessful since the statute of limitations had passed.
Tyson still stands by what he claims Donham told him. “Carolyn Bryant denies it and avoids talking about it like it was the plague,” he wrote in a statement, according to NBC. “I am standing in the public square telling the truth as I see it based on solid evidence.”
“Let us just look at the evidence as if I had never talked to Carolyn,” Tyson said. “That she lied in court does not depend on her admission of it to me, not at all.”