Case Closed

There is a great AP article about the (presumably) final chapter of the Emmett Till case. The title sums it up quite nicely, I think: “End of Till case draws mixed response.”

To some, the Leflore County grand jury’s decision not to return an indictment in the case following an exhaustive three-year federal investigation was a sign that not much has changed in Mississippi in the last 52 years.

But others, including the prosecutor herself, felt it showed the opposite — a maturing of racial justice in this part of the South.

I’m not sure I agree completely with either of those stances, but I suppose I lean toward the latter. While I wouldn’t claim that racial injustice no longer exists in Mississippi, the prosecutor makes a compelling argument. (The prosecutor, it should be noted, is a black woman who grew up on the banks of the Tallahatchie River where Till’s body was found.)

“It would have been very easy for that grand jury to have returned a true bill based solely on emotion and the rage they felt. And I commend them for not doing that,” says Joyce Chiles, the black district attorney who directed the case in which the grand jury declined to charge 73-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham — the object of Till’s infamous wolf whistle.

If the grand jurors had acted on the basis of hate, not evidence, Chiles says, that would have been more like the Jim Crow justice of 1955.

“We are justice seekers and not head hunters,” Chiles says. “And If I were to follow the law and the evidence as it was presented, I would have had to have returned a no bill.”

Generally, I believe that re-opening these sorts of cases is a good thing, and I was happy when I read two years ago that the Justice Department was investigating the Till murder. Those who committed crimes should be held accountable, no matter how long ago their act took place. I don’t accept the claim, inevitably voiced by opponents of prosecution, that “It’s all in the past” or that “We should let sleeping dogs lie.” Given the apparent lack of hard evidence in this case, however, I think Chiles has a point.


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