Mississippi Sheriff Pushes Back on Emmett Till Lawsuit

Leflore County's Ricky Banks says arrest warrant against Carolyn Bryant Donham is 'moot'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 11, 2023 3:15 PM CST
Updated Apr 20, 2023 8:33 AM CDT
Lawsuit Seeks Arrest in Emmett Till Kidnapping
This undated photo shows Emmett Louis Till, who was kidnapped, tortured, and killed in the Mississippi Delta in August 1955.   (AP Photo/File)
UPDATE Apr 20, 2023 8:33 AM CDT

A Mississippi sheriff at the center of a lawsuit involving the murder of Emmett Till is pushing back on the complaint, which calls for him to serve a decades-old arrest warrant against the wife of one of the men who abducted and killed the Black 14-year-old in 1955. Per the Washington Post, attorneys for Sheriff Ricky Banks said in April 13 court filings that the suit should be dismissed, citing the decision last summer by a grand jury not to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham. Banks' filing calls the 1955 warrant "moot" and says that the misconduct allegations made in the complaint by Priscilla Sterling, Tills' cousin, involve the previous Leflore County sheriff, not Banks. Banks' motion also notes Sterling didn't suffer any injury herself, and so shouldn't be bringing the suit. The AP notes Banks has been the sheriff since 1980, though he indicated months ago that he doesn't plan to run for reelection this year.

Feb 11, 2023 3:15 PM CST

A relative of Emmett Till is suing to try to make a Mississippi sheriff serve a 1955 arrest warrant on a white woman in the kidnapping that led to the Black teenager's brutal lynching. The torture and killing of Till in the Mississippi Delta became a catalyst for the civil rights movement after his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago and Jet magazine published photos of his mutilated body. Last June, a team doing research at the courthouse in Leflore County, Mississippi, found an unserved 1955 arrest warrant for Carolyn Bryant, listed on that document as "Mrs. Roy Bryant." Till's cousin Patricia Sterling of Jackson, Mississippi, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the current Leflore County sheriff, Ricky Banks, the AP reports. The suit seeks to compel Banks to serve the warrant on Carolyn Bryant, who has since remarried and is named Carolyn Bryant Donham.

"We are using the available means at our disposal to try to achieve justice on behalf of the Till family," Sterling's attorney Trent Walker said on Friday. In August 1955, Donham accused Till, who was 14, of making improper advances on her at a grocery store. A cousin of Till who was there has said Till whistled at the woman, an act that flew in the face of Mississippi's racist social codes. Evidence indicates a woman, possibly Donham, identified Till to the men who later killed him. The arrest warrant against Donham was publicized in 1955, but the sheriff at the time told reporters that he did not want to "bother" the woman since she was raising two young children. Weeks after Till's body was found in a river, her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother JW Milam were tried for murder and acquitted by an all-white jury. Months later, the men confessed in a paid interview with Look magazine.

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Now in her late 80s, Donham has lived in North Carolina and Kentucky in recent years. She has not commented publicly on calls for her prosecution. The US Justice Department announced in December 2021 that it had ended its latest investigation into the lynching of Till without bringing charges. After the arrest warrant was found last June, the office of Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch said there was no new evidence to try to pursue a criminal case against Donham. In August, a district attorney said a Leflore County grand jury had declined to indict Donham. "But for Carolyn Bryant falsely claiming to her husband that Emmett Till assaulted her Emmett would not have been murdered," Sterling's lawsuit says. "It was Carolyn Bryant's lie that sent Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam into a rage, which resulted in the mutilation of Emmett Till's body into (an) unrecognizable condition."

(More Emmett Till stories.)

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