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Mississippi Officials Weigh New Emmett Till Probe

ED GORDON, host:

Emmett Till, over the years, has become synonymous with the racial horrors of the old South. Till was a black teenager who was murdered more than 50 years ago in Mississippi, after allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Now, officials in that state are considering whether to bring new charges in the case. Now the decision to pursue new charges is up to a black woman whose generation was profoundly changed by Till's gruesome death.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was beaten, murdered, and killed the same year Joyce Chiles was born in Mississippi. But even though she lived just a few counties over, Till's death and the exploding civil rights movement were worlds away.

Chiles grew up on a plantation picking cotton for a white landowner, and going to segregated schools with her three sisters in the town of Itta Bena.

Ms. JOYCE CHILES (Mississippi District Attorney): I didn't learn about this case until, maybe Junior High School. I saw the picture of Till in his coffin in the Jet Magazine, and the only thing I could think was how horrible. But it's not one of those things that I grew up thinking about on a daily basis.

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Unidentified Man: The Board calls the meeting of the Board of Directors…

CORNISH: Now Joyce Chiles is thinking about the case on a daily basis. As the elected District Attorney for the Delta County where Till was killed, Chiles faces questions from her fellow prosecutors at their state meeting, where she's the only black woman in a sea of white faces.

Some, she says, are critical of the on-going investigation into Till's death.

Ms. CHILES: My colleagues from other districts, I have to say, some think that it is a complete waste. And that we won't get enough evidence from the investigation to warrant a conviction; maybe not even an indictment.

CORNISH: That's because no one was ever convicted of Till's murder. In the summer of 1955, Emmett Till was visiting Mississippi from Chicago. One afternoon he and his friends popped into a general store in the town of Money, Mississippi. It's there that Till allegedly whistled at one of the shopkeepers, a white woman named Carolyn Bryant.

Less than a week later, Till was kidnapped, beaten, murdered, and his body dumped into the Tallahatchie River. Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were acquitted by an all-white jury. Although they confessed a year later to a national magazine, both men were dead of cancer by the early 1990s, when these kinds of cases were being reopened.

District Attorney Chiles says the age of the case is the first hurdle to new charges.

Ms. CHILES: The second problem would be whether or not some of the main participants, other than the two that were tried, are still alive. Third, if there are others who are alive, who participated in the murder of Till, was their participation willing?

CORNISH: But these days, a public once prone to let sleeping dogs lie has come to expect justice in civil rights era cases.

Since 1989, prosecutors around the country have reexamined nearly 30 different killings and have been able to make arrests, and even gotten convictions, in fully two-thirds of those cases.

Ms. CHILES: At the grocery store, at Wal-Mart, someone's always coming up to me, asking me about the Till case.

CORNISH: And Chiles says her response is always the same.

Ms. CHILES: I don't know if there is anyone. But if there is someone there, and if there's evidence to support a charge, we intend to charge and we intend to prosecute.

CORNISH: FBI investigators reopened the Till case in 2004, working with Chiles' office, and generated volumes of new research.

But while federal civil rights prosecutors are hamstrung by a statute of limitations, there's no such obstacle for murder cases in the state of Mississippi. The decision is on Chiles, whether to bring someone to justice.

Ms. CHILES: Everyone seems to think that there's a lot of pressure on me. I don't feel the pressure. I look at this case, although some say I can't look at this case like I would any other case, I actually do. If it's there, we'll prosecute, and if it's not, we won't.

CORNISH: There are few places where District Attorney Joyce Chiles can get away from the Emmett Till case. When she can, she goes fishing for catfish and brim on nearby Lake Ferguson. She listens to gospel and visits her sisters. But she carries pages from the Till file nearly everywhere she goes, and several more boxes of FBI research await her at her office each day.

Audie Cornish, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.