Justice Department closes investigation into Emmett Till killing after failing to prove key witness lied

The Justice Department has officially closed its investigation into the infamous of killing Emmett Till for a second time, two sources familiar with the investigation said, leaving only more questions after a potentially significant claim from one of the last living witnesses led investigators on a fresh hunt for evidence.

In 2017, Professor Timothy Tyson unearthed what appeared to be a key piece of evidence in one of the most haunting and grisly murders of the Jim Crow Era: a recantation from the woman at the center of the case who had accused Till of making sexual advances at her over 60 years ago.

Yet after an exhaustive investigation, the Justice Department has now concluded it cannot prove the woman lied to federal investigators.

Fourteen-year-old Till was visiting family in Mississippi in 1955 — the scene of his fateful encounter with then 20-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham. Witness accounts from that day differ, but witnesses alleged that Till whistled at Donham as she left the market she ran with her husband. Donham testified that Till grabbed her hand and propositioned her, saying that he had been with “white women before.” Yet when confronted with that trial testimony in 2008 — Tyson claimed she told him: “That part’s not true.”

The explosive claim set off a firestorm of calls for re-opening the cold case. The Justice Department had already re-opened the case once and concluded in 2007 no one could be prosecuted based on the evidence available and the statute of limitations. Armed with Tyson’s new claims, federal investigators once again spoke to Donham. But she denied ever recanting her earlier testimony.

Sources familiar with the investigation say that the critical statements Tyson attributed to Donham were not recorded or transcribed, and he gave inconsistent statements of whether a recording had ever been made.

CNN has reached out to Tyson for comment.

While witness accounts and memories differ as to Till and Donham’s interaction on the day in question — ultimately the 14-year-old Black teen was kidnapped, tortured, and killed at the hands of two White men who were prosecuted in state court and acquitted by an all-White jury. The men later admitted to the killing in an interview with Look magazine and are now dead.

Donham could not be immediately reached for comment.

Justice Department officials, including the head of the Civil Rights Division, Kristen Clarke, flew to Chicago on Monday to brief Till’s remaining family members in person on what the investigators had found and the decision to close the case, according to sources familiar with the matter.

This story is breaking and will be updated.

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