GREENWOOD, Miss. – On Monday, there were funeral services for a Mississippi prosecutor who was working on one of the reopened investigations into the lynching of a black teenager named Emmett Till in 1955, a homicide that spurred the civil rights movement after his mother insisted on a funeral with an open coffin so that people could see her son’s mutilated body.
Joyce Chiles died of lung c*ncer on Thursday at a hospital in Ruleville, coroner Greenwood Commonwealth said. She was 67 years old. Services were at Itta Bena on Monday.
Chiles was elected district attorney for three Mississippi Delta counties – Leflore, Washington, and Sunflower – in 2003 and served one term before deciding not to run for re-election. She was the first black person and the first woman to hold this position.
In 2007, Chiles presented evidence to a grand jury of black and white Leflore County residents after investigators spent three years re-investigating Till’s m*rder. The FBI exhumed Till’s body to prove that he, and not someone else, was buried on his grave in the Chicago suburb of Alsip. A grand jury has refused to issue a bill of indictment against anyone.
The FBI reopened the case in 2004 after filmmaker Keith Beauchamp compiled a list of at least 14 people – black and white – who he believed played a role in the kidnapping, beating and killing of Till. He went to the authorities with the names of five people who were still alive. The Justice Department said the statute of limitations has expired for any potential federal crimes, but the FBI has worked with state investigators to determine if state prosecutions can be brought.
Chiles told the Associated Press in 2007 that the reopened investigation did not provide evidence to support the indictments.
“We are justice seekers, not headhunters,” said Chiles.
Till, a 14-year-old resident of Chicago, visited his family in the Mississippi Delta in the summer of 1955. He and other young people went to a village shop in the town of Money, and relatives told AP that Till was whistling at the white woman working there, Carolyn Bryant. They denied having touched her, according to Bryant.
Four days later, white men kidnapped Till from his uncle’s house and killed the teenager, then dumped his body into the Tallahatchie River. The mutilated body was found a few days later, laden with a ginning fan.
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After Till’s funeral in Chicago, Jet magazine published a photo of his body.
A jury of white men acquitted Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother JW Milam, of m*rder charges weeks after the m*rder, but the two men later told Look magazine that they had kidnapped and killed Till.
In 2018, the Justice Department reopened its investigation after a 2017 book cited Carolyn Bryant – then known as Carolyn Bryant Donham – saying she had lied when she claimed Till had caught her and had made s*xual advances. The department closed this investigation in late 2021 without charges.
This year, the FBI reopened an investigation after people searching the basement of Leflore County Courthouse found an unreserved arrest warrant for Carolyn Bryant. In August, another Leflore County jury refused to impeach her.
In a 2007 interview with AP, Chiles said that it would be easy for grand jury members more than 50 years later to accuse someone “based on the emotion and rage they felt.” She praised them for not doing this.
Chiles said she grew up on a plantation near where Till’s body was pulled out of the Tallahatchie River.
Speaking of Donham, Chiles said, “I didn’t feel good about her; I still don’t feel comfortable with her. “
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