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Carolyn Bryant Donham, accuser at center of Emmett Till death, dies

(CNN) — Carolyn Bryant Donham, the White woman whose accusation led to the 1955 lynching of Black teen Emmett Till in Mississippi — and whose role in the brutal death was reconsidered by a grand jury as recently as last year — has died in Louisiana, the Calcasieu Parish coroner’s office confirmed to CNN.

Donham, 88, died Tuesday in Westlake, according to a fact of death letter from the coroner.

Malik Shabazz, with Black Lawyers for Justice, said in a statement Thursday that Donham’s legacy “will be one of dishonesty and injustice.”

“Carolyn Bryant’s death brings a conclusion to a painful chapter for the Emmett Till family and for Black peoples in America. The tragic part about Bryant’s death was that she was never held accountable for her role in the death of young Emmett Till, who is the martyr for the Civil Rights Movement,” the statement reads.

In August 1955, 14-year-old Emmett was beaten and shot to death after he allegedly whistled at Bryant — now Donham — in Money.

Later, her husband, Roy Bryant, and J.W. Milam, took Emmett from his bed and ordered him into the back of a pickup truck and beat him before shooting him in the head and tossing his body into the Tallahatchie River. They were both acquitted of murder by an all-White jury following a trial in which Carolyn Bryant testified that Emmett grabbed and verbally threatened her.

Milam, who died in 1980, and Bryant, who died in 1994, admitted to the killing in a 1956 interview with Look magazine.

In 2007, a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict Donham on any charges.

Donham testified in 1955 that Emmett grabbed her hand and waist and propositioned her, saying he had been with “White women before.” But years later, when professor Timothy Tyson raised that trial testimony in a 2008 interview with Donham, he claimed she told him, “That part’s not true.”

The interview was included in Tyson’s book, “The Blood of Emmett Till.”

In a statement after Donham’s death, Tyson said: “68 years ago, there was the unspeakable murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago. It has comforted America to see this as a story about monsters, her one of them. But the truth is what was unspeakable was the American social order that did nothing about Emmett Till or thousands more like him.”

The prospect that the woman at the center of Emmett’s case had recanted her testimony — which the US Justice Department said in a memo would contradict statements she made during the state trial in 1955 and later to the FBI — prompted calls for authorities to reopen the investigation.

The DOJ, which had already re-examined and closed the case in 2007, reopened the probe into Emmett’s killing in 2018. But the case was closed in December 2021 after the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division concluded it could not prove Donham had lied. When questioned directly, Donham adamantly denied to investigators that she had recanted her testimony.

In August 2022, a Leflore County, Mississippi, grand jury declined to indict Donham, deciding there was insufficient evidence to indict her on charges of kidnapping and manslaughter, according to a statement from District Attorney Dewayne Richardson.

The grand jury heard the testimony from witnesses detailing the investigation of the case from 2004 to the present day and considered both charges, Richardson said.

“After hearing every aspect of the investigation and evidence collected regarding Donham’s involvement, the Grand Jury returned a ‘No Bill’ to the charges of both Kidnapping and Manslaughter,” the statement said. “The murder of Emmett Till remains an unforgettable tragedy in this country and the thoughts and prayers of this nation continue to be with the family of Emmett Till.”

The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett’s cousin and the last living witness to the abduction, said on Thursday after Donham’s death: “Our hearts go out to the family of Carolyn Bryant Donham. As a person of faith for more than 60 years, I recognize that any loss of life is tragic and don’t have any ill will or animosity toward her.”

“Even though no one now will be held to account for the death of my cousin and best friend, it is up to all of us to be accountable to the challenges we still face in overcoming racial injustice,” he said.

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