The Emmett Till case is closed, but the fight for justice against racial violence continues
In this country, there is no statute of limitations on murder, and for good reason.
For more than 66 years, the family of Emmett Till has asked who would answer for his brutal 1955 lynching in the Mississippi Delta. This past week, they got the response. No one will answer for Emmett’s death. No one will be brought to justice.
Now, the public is left to consider the larger question of what justice requires in cold cases like Till’s. How far should we go? What should we expect to accomplish by continuing to press for justice in crimes committed such a long time ago?
These questions have arisen again after the U.S. Department of Justice announced that, after nearly four years in the latest phase of the now-closed FBI investigation, no credible evidence had surfaced to support an indictment in the Till case. The FBI search for proof that Carolyn Bryant Donham confessed to telling lies about Till, leading to his death, was jump-started by Timothy Tyson’s 2017 book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” which included what Tyson claimed was Donham’s recantation of an account she had given under oath.
No credible evidence was produced, leading the FBI to close the case. But, clearly, concerns linger.
When the DOJ opened this matter in 2004, there was general public apprehension about reopening old wounds and subjecting victims, the survivors of racial violence, to resurrected trauma.
Worse yet, there was concern about reviving racial tension in communities that only had pretended to overcome oppressive attitudes and behavior. Was it even worth it to go after suspects, who often were old and infirm by this time? Would contemporary juries view them as sympathetic? How might these cases be judged in the court of public opinion? Let the past stay in the past, too many people said.
But that response is not just offensive to the surviving families of victims. It also offends our collective sense of justice. What kind of society allows people to get away with murder, just because they can live long lives? Certainly not Germany, where earlier this year, a 100-year-old prison guard and several people in their 90s were indicted for Holocaust crimes.
No running out the clock
The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act, passed in 2007, established a cold case unit in the DOJ to investigate, and hopefully bring justice, in murder cases like Till’s that involve civil rights violations.
In this country, there is no statute of limitations on murder, and for good reason. Deterrence is a pillar of our criminal justice system. All of us must understand that, no matter how long you live, no matter what condition you might be in at the end of your life, if you have committed a crime, then you will be found, convicted and imprisoned for whatever life you have left.
Still, there is a legal conundrum in some cases, as with Carolyn Bryant Donham. Which would be worse: to indict her on less than substantial evidence and allow her to beat the charge, or pass on the case and allow many in the public to continue to believe in her guilt? That is our belief, our “truth,” based on everything we ever have known about this case. But “truth” is not proof.
The vital thing here, and in all similar cases, is that we make sure people do not conclude that a perpetrator can get away with a hate crime or racial violence if they simply run out the clock.
Hopefully, the Emmett Till cold case unit will continue to send a different message: That it is never too late to seek justice, especially in cases of racial violence that remain symbols of America’s endemic racial problem.
The Till case has been closed but the jury is still out on the question — Who will answer for Emmett? That question is also a challenge.
If we fail to take a stand against the violation of civil rights, the flaws in our judicial system, then we all will.
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Christopher Benson is an associate professor in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. He is co-author with Mamie Till-Mobley of “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America.”