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The brutal Emmett Till murder case is being reopened. Here’s what we know

Based on new information, the Justice Department is reopening the investigation into the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the African-American boy whose brutal killing by two white men in Mississippi became a galvanizing event that helped spark the civil rights movement in America. William Brangham gets reaction from Sen. Doug Jones, R-Ala.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, the Department of Justice is reopening the investigation into the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy whose brutal killing by two white men in Mississippi became a galvanizing event that helped to spark the civil rights movement in America.

    William Brangham has the latest on the decades-old case.

    And a warning, there are some very disturbing images in this report.

  • William Brangham:

    Emmett Till was a young boy from Chicago who, in 1955, was visiting family in Mississippi when he allegedly whistled and made a sexual remark to a white woman named Carolyn Bryant and then grabbed her.

    This was the Jim Crow South. And for his alleged actions, Emmett Till was kidnapped by armed men, brutally beaten and shot in the head. His killers took a heavy piece of farm equipment, tied it around his neck with barbed wire and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River. It was discovered several days later.

    Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, demanded an open casket funeral for her son in Chicago. She wanted to show the nation exactly what racist violence looked like. Tens of thousands of people came to see Till’s mutilated body, and photos were published nationwide in mainly black publications.

    The next month, two men, Carolyn Bryant’s husband and his half-brother, were tried for Till’s murder and acquitted by an all-white jury. In an interview afterwards, the men freely admitted they’d killed the young boy.

    Last year, Timothy Tyson’s book “The Blood of Emmett Till” had this revelation. Carolyn Bryant admitted she lied about her interaction with Emmett Till, saying the teenager never — quote — “grabbed her around the waist or uttered obscenities,” as she had testified at trial. Bryant added — quote — “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

    Timothy Tyson spoke with Jeffrey Brown about this revelation last year.

  • Timothy Tyson:

    I certainly never thought she was telling the truth at trial. She’s been in hiding almost for all these 60-some years. It was her husband who did the killing and her brother-in-law. It’s not clear what role she had in that.

  • William Brangham:

    In a letter to Congress, the Department of Justice said it was reopening the investigation into Till’s murder based on the discovery of new information, but it didn’t specify what that information was or who might be the subject of their inquiry.

    Both of the admitted killers have since died.

    Joining me now is Democratic Senator Doug Jones of Alabama. In his earlier life, Jones successfully prosecuted another famous decades-old civil rights case. He convicted two members of the Ku Klux Klan for the murder of four young black girls in the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

    Senator, welcome to the “NewsHour.”

    I wonder if you could just give me your reaction to the news about this reopening of the inquiry into Emmett Till’s case.

  • Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.:

    Well, you know, I think it’s pretty exciting.

    That’s a decades-old case that needs as thorough a look as possible. It’s an uphill battle on any of these old cases, but I think that one, of all the cases that are out there, certainly needs as thorough a look as possible. We will see how it goes.

  • William Brangham:

    The DOJ has said that there is some new evidence, but they haven’t explained what the evidence might be or who they’re looking at.

    Why do you think this is happening now?

  • Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.:

    Well, obviously, they have seen some new evidence. I think there are some media reports about admissions that the wife of one of the former defendants who is now deceased has made.

    I think that’s probably part of it. And I think the Justice Department, over the years, has been very active in trying to take a look at these old cases. From the time that I was U.S. attorney in 1997, they have been pretty active consistently throughout the administrations with regards to these cases.

    If they can make a case, they will make a case. If they can’t, they will send it off to the state to see if the state can make a case, which is probably more likely in the case of the Emmett Till investigation, if a case can be made at all. It’s an uphill battle.

  • William Brangham:

    Help me understand what you think might still be left to investigate, because the two men who were charged with the murder were exonerated, but they then admitted they had done it. But they have both died.

    The wife of one of the men admitted she perjured herself, but I believe the statute of limitations is up on that. So, what is there still to investigate, in your mind?

  • Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.:

    Well, there may be other people involved. The wife could still be involved. She could have been part of the whole conspiracy, that the lying was just part of that.

    So I think that there’s a way to — at least as far as the state statutes are concerned, to bring this in a manner in which the statute of limitation wouldn’t have run. It really is going to depend on who it is that they’re looking at and how it can connect to the crime itself, not just the abduction, but the murder itself.

  • William Brangham:

    Timothy Tyson, the scholar who wrote the book about Emmett Till and who we just heard from, from an old interview from Jeffrey Brown, gave a press conference where he said the announcement of this inquiry is politically motivated.

    He said it was basically to cover up what he described as the Trump administration’s disgusting racial politics. Do you think that that’s fair?

  • Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.:

    No, I really don’t think that that’s fair.

    The Civil Rights Division has been looking at this case, as well as many others, for — again, as I said, since at least 1997, when I was the United States attorney, and it’s been other administrations.

    I actually heard that same kind of response about the George W. Bush administration 15, 16 years ago, when they also took a look at this. You know, the thing is — and I can certainly understand why people would say that, but the fact of the matter is, this is still a murder case. It was still a heinous case that was never solved.

    And the two perpetrators died. If we can bring any kind of closer, if we can bring any kind of healing or any kind of prosecution, and I think we ought to give it our best shot, regardless of what the motives might be.

  • William Brangham:

    You prosecuted, as I mentioned before, another one of these decades-old cases where you had to go back and talk to people years and years after a crime had occurred. How difficult is that, as a prosecutor, to do that?

  • Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.:

    Well, it’s very difficult.

    I mean, you have got two different problems. You have got, one, that so many of the witnesses are now deceased. In this case, the two main perpetrators are now deceased. And then, for those who are still alive, memories fade.

    Trying to pull those cases back together, it’s a puzzle in which so many of the pieces of that puzzle are missing, and you just hope you can pull that puzzle together to show a picture of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s very, very difficult to do. Every day that passes, we lose the opportunity to actually prosecute these old cases.

  • William Brangham:

    Carolyn Bryant, the woman at the center of the Till case, who said that Till harassed her, she admitted that she lied on the stand. Could she be in legal jeopardy?

  • Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.:

    Well, I think it’s possible. It depends on what happens after that.

    If the lying itself was part of an effort to simply grab this young man and kill him, for whatever reason, but that was part of the plan, part of the conspiracy, then, absolutely, she could be. If she was present in the automobile when Till was abducted and the defendants knew that she was lying about this and this was a pretext to abduct and kill this young man, then, absolutely, she could be.

    I think that’s a little bit difficult, but it absolutely — you know, stranger things have happened. And I think, a lot of these cases, things have to line up just right. And so we will just see how that goes.

  • William Brangham:

    You have introduced some legislation that would try to help this process along for many more civil rights cases. Can you explain what your legislation would do?

  • Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.:

    Sure.

    The legislation we introduced this week would try to create — it would create a commission through the National Archives, so that these old cases can be assimilated, brought into one place.

    And a board, an independent board can look at the files, all the records to make those available to the public, to the media, to historians, to the communities, because, as I was just saying, not all of these cases, in fact, very, very few of these cases now, can actually be prosecuted for any number of reasons.

    But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to solve them. It shouldn’t mean that these families should be denied access to the facts and truth about what happened. And, quite frankly, the community needs to know this, too. The community needs to have that healing.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, thanks very much.

  • Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.:

    My pleasure. Thank you, William.

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