The federal government has quietly revived its investigation into the murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy whose abduction and killing remains, almost 63 years later, among the starkest and most searing examples of racial violence in the South.
The Justice Department said that its renewed inquiry, which it described in a report submitted to Congress in late March, was “based upon the discovery of new information.” It is not clear, though, whether the government will be able to bring charges against anyone: Most episodes investigated in recent years as part of a federal effort to re-examine racially motivated murders have not led to prosecutions, or even referrals to state authorities.
The Justice Department declined to comment on Thursday, but it appeared that the government had chosen to devote new attention to the case after a central witness, Carolyn Bryant Donham, recanted parts of her account of what transpired in August 1955. Two men who confessed to killing Emmett, only after they had been acquitted by an all-white jury in Mississippi, are dead.
[Read about the woman linked to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till]
Yet the Till case, which staggered the nation after the boy’s open-coffin funeral and the publication of photographs of his mutilated body, has never faded away, especially in a region still grappling with the horrors of its past. Even in recent years, historical markers about the case have been vandalized.
“I don’t think this is something the South is going to forget easily,” said Joyce Chiles, a former district attorney in Mississippi who was involved in a mid-2000s review of the Till case that concluded with no new charges.
For more than six decades, Emmett’s death has stood as a symbol of Southern racism. The boy was visiting family in Money, Miss., deep in the Mississippi Delta, from Chicago when he went to a store owned by Ms. Donham and her then husband, who was one of the men who ultimately confessed to Emmett’s murder. Emmett was kidnapped and killed days later, his body tethered to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire and then cast into a river.
The case — gruesome and shocking — became a catalyst for the broader civil rights movement.
But Ms. Donham’s description of the events leading to the attack has repeatedly shifted. One account had the boy only insulting her verbally. In court, but without jurors present, she claimed that Emmett had made physical contact with her and spoken in crude, sexual language. She later told the F.B.I. that Emmett had touched her hand.
And when she spoke to the researcher Timothy B. Tyson in 2008, she acknowledged that it was “not true” that Emmett had grabbed her or made vulgar remarks. She told Dr. Tyson, who published a book about the case last year, that “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
Ms. Donham could not be reached for comment on Thursday, but Dr. Tyson said at a news conference that while he supported the inquiry, he believed it to be “a political show” to distract from the Trump administration’s controversies. He said that he had spoken with the F.B.I. last year and complied with a subpoena for his research materials.
Ms. Chiles, the former Mississippi prosecutor, said that Ms. Donham’s recantation should have provoked a new examination by the federal authorities, but she also suggested that even truthful testimony in the mid-1950s would not have changed the legal outcome given the racism of the time.
“I don’t think it would have resulted in a different verdict,” she said.
Airickca Gordon-Taylor, a cousin of Emmett’s who was raised by his mother, said Thursday that some members of the Till family had previously learned of the Justice Department’s inquiry. Ms. Gordon-Taylor, who is president of the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation, said the news “came as no surprise” and declined further comment.
The Till case is a renewed and prominent test for the Justice Department officials charged with investigating long-ago murders that are thought to have been racially motivated. Since 2006, according to the Justice Department, its efforts have led to five successful prosecutions, including that of Edgar Ray Killen, who was involved in the killings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi and died in prison this year.
The last successful prosecution came in 2010, when a former Alabama state trooper was convicted of manslaughter for the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a protester whose death led to the Selma to Montgomery march.
But prosecutors have faced daunting challenges. Beyond familiar barriers — such as a statute of limitations, the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy and the reality that many people of the era have died — racially motivated attacks committed before 1968 cannot be prosecuted under a federal hate crimes law.
“Even with our best efforts,” the Justice Department told Congress this year, “investigations into historic cases are exceptionally difficult, and rarely will justice be reached inside of a courtroom.”
In the Till case, that could again prove true.
The Justice Department, whose new inquiry was first reported by The Associated Press, last began a significant review of the Till case in 2004, but prosecutors ultimately determined that the statute of limitations had left them without any charges they could pursue in a federal court. The F.B.I. still conducted an inquiry, which included an exhumation of Emmett’s body from an Illinois cemetery, for about two years to settle whether there were any state crimes that could still be prosecuted.
Ms. Chiles presented the case to a grand jury and asked that Ms. Donham be charged with manslaughter, but the panel did not return any indictments.
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