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Grand jury declines to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham, the White woman whose accusation set off Emmett Till's lynching

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Grand jury declines to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham
Grand jury declines to indict woman in Emmett Till killing 00:25

A grand jury in Mississippi has declined to indict the White woman whose accusation set off the lynching of Black teenager Emmett Till nearly 70 years ago, despite revelations about an unserved arrest warrant and an unpublished memoir by the woman, a prosecutor said Tuesday.

After hearing more than seven hours of testimony from investigators and witnesses, a Leflore County grand jury last week determined there was insufficient evidence to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham on charges of kidnapping and manslaughter.

It is now increasingly unlikely that Donham, who is now in her 80s, will ever be prosecuted for her role in the events that led to Till's lynching.

Emmett Till
In this file combo photo, John W. Milam, 35, left, his half-brother Roy Bryant, 24, center, who were charged with the murder of Emmett Till from Chicago, Bryant's wife Carolyn, is seen right.  AP

Till's cousin, Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr., condemned the decision as "unfortunate but predictable" in a statement to CBS News. 

"The prosecutor tried his best, and we appreciate his efforts, but he alone cannot undo hundreds of years of anti-Black systems that guaranteed those who killed Emmett Till would go unpunished, to this day," Parker said in the statement. "The fact remains that the people who abducted, tortured, and murdered Emmett did so in plain sight, and our American justice system was and continues to be set up in such a way that they could not be brought to justice for their heinous crimes." 

An email and voicemail seeking comment from Donham's son Tom Bryant weren't immediately returned Tuesday.

A group searching the basement of the Leflore County Courthouse in June discovered the unserved arrest warrant charging Donham, then-husband Roy Bryant and brother-in-law J.W. Milam in Till's abduction in 1955. While the men were arrested and acquitted on murder charges in Till's subsequent slaying, Donham, 21 at the time and 87 now, was never taken into custody.

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A photo of Emmett Till is included on the plaque that marks his gravesite at Burr Oak Cemetery May 4, 2005 in Aslip, Illinois.  Scott Olson/Getty Images

In an unpublished memoir obtained last month by The Associated Press, Donham said she was unaware of what would happen to the 14-year-old Till, who lived in Chicago and was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was abducted, killed and tossed in a river. She accused him of making lewd comments and grabbing her while she worked alone at a family store in Money, Mississippi.

Donham said in the manuscript that the men brought Till to her in the middle of the night for identification but that she tried to help the youth by denying it was him. Despite being abducted at gunpoint from a family home by Roy Bryant and Milam, the 14-year-old identified himself to the men, she claimed.

Till's battered, disfigured body was found days later in a river, where it was weighted down with a heavy metal fan. The decision by his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to open Till's casket for his funeral in Chicago demonstrated the horror of what had happened and added fuel to the civil rights movement.

"No family should ever have to endure this pain for this long," Parker said in his statement to CBS News Tuesday. "Going forward, we must keep the details, and memory, of the brutal murder of Emmett Till, and the courage of Mamie Mobley, alive, so that we can reduce racial violence, improve our system of justice, and treat each other with the dignity and respect with which Mrs. Mobley graced us all."

The U.S. Justice Department last year said it was ending its investigation into Till's killing.

The Justice Department in 2004 had opened an investigation of Till's killing after it received inquiries about whether charges could be brought against anyone still living. The department said the statute of limitations had run out on any potential federal crime, but the FBI worked with state investigators to determine if state charges could be brought. In February 2007, a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict anyone, and the Justice Department announced it was closing the case.

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Carolyn Bryant
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