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Emmett Till killing: Justice Department closes investigation after failing to prove key witness lied

In 2017, Professor Timothy Tyson unearthed what appeared to be a key piece of evidence in one of the most haunting and grisly murders of the Jim Crow Era: a recantation from the woman at the center of the case who had accused Till of making sexual advances at her over 60 years ago.

Yet after an exhaustive investigation, the Justice Department has now concluded it cannot prove the woman lied to federal investigators.

Fourteen-year-old Till was visiting family in Mississippi in 1955 — the scene of his fateful encounter with then-20-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham. Witness accounts from that day differ, but witnesses alleged that Till whistled at Donham as she left the market she ran with her husband. Donham testified that Till grabbed her hand and propositioned her, saying that he had been with « white women before. » Yet when that trial testimony was raised with her in a 2008 interview — Tyson claimed Donham told him: « That part’s not true. »

The explosive claim set off a firestorm of calls for re-opening the cold case. The Justice Department had already re-opened the case once and concluded in 2007 that no one could be prosecuted at the federal level based on the evidence available and the statute of limitations.

Armed with Tyson’s new claims, federal investigators once again spoke to Donham.

The goal, sources familiar with the investigation say, was to determine if Donham actually recanted her previous testimony, and if so, what other evidence she might be willing to provide that could shed light on her role in the killing or in identifying others who might be culpable.

Yet when questioned directly, Donham adamantly denied to investigators that she had recanted her testimony.

Sources say that the critical statements Tyson attributed to Donham were not recorded or transcribed, and he gave authorities inconsistent statements on whether a recording had ever been made. Tyson took some notes of their conversation, but he did not provide a firm timeline of when her confession reportedly happened.

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. »

While witness accounts and memories differ as to Till and Donham’s interaction on the day in question — ultimately the 14-year-old Black teen was kidnapped, tortured, and killed at the hands of two White men who were prosecuted in state court and acquitted by an all-White jury. The men later admitted to the killing in an interview with Look magazine and are now dead.

Donham could not be immediately reached for comment.

The end to the notorious case’s latest chapter is likely to leave Till’s remaining family members with more questions than answers. The image of his mutilated body, first published in Jet Magazine at his mother’s request, was seared into the minds of many as one of the enduring images of the civil rights era.

Justice Department officials, including the head of the Civil Rights Division, Kristen Clarke, flew to Chicago on Monday to brief Till’s remaining family members in person on what the investigators had found and the decision to close the case, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The Justice Department is expected to release a formal « closing memo » explaining the evidence investigators reviewed and its conclusions in detail Monday.

This story has been updated with additional reporting Monday.

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