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A timeline of Emmett Till’s accuser’s changing stories

By Justin Gamble, CNN

In recent weeks, the murder of Emmett Till and the decades-old questions surrounding the case have made headlines with the recent discovery of an unserved warrant for his accuser and the release of her sealed draft memoir.

The details have sparked renewed interest in how the accounts of her encounters with the Black teen have changed over the years.

Carolyn Bryant Donham, who accused Emmett of making advances toward her, says the Black teen admitted it was him when her husband and two other men brought Emmett to her, according to a 99-page unpublished draft memoir obtained by CNN.

In the draft memoir, she claimed after she told her then-husband Roy Bryant that Emmett wasn’t the person she encountered in the store, the 14-year-old smiled and said, “Yes, it was me.”

Details revealed by Bryant Donham in the sealed draft memoir have raised even more questions surrounding Emmett’s murder and the events before and after his death because of contradictory statements she made at the time.

Here’s a closer look:

September 1955

In late September 1955, less than one month after Emmett was killed, Bryant Donham testified under oath during an evidentiary hearing in Bryant’s trial. According to the trial transcript, Bryant Donham testified that she never saw Emmett again after August 24, when he whistled at her at the couple’s store:

Q: When you got your pistol, Mrs. Bryant, where was this boy then? Or, I should say, where was this man?

A: When I turned around, he was getting in a car down the road.

Q: Did you rush back in the store then?

A: Yes.

Q: Had you ever seen that man before?

A: No.

Q: Have you ever seen him since?

A: No.

50 years later

Despite this sworn testimony in 1955, in 2005, during the first of two federal examinations of Emmett’s kidnapping and murder conducted by the FBI, Bryant Donham told the FBI her then-husband brought Emmett to her after he took him from his great uncle’s home on August 28 in the middle of the night.

According to a redacted FBI transcription of the interview, Bryant Donham told an FBI investigator:

“[REDACTED] advised that she was at home in Money, Mississippi with [REDACTED] when sometime during the night Roy Bryant, J.W. Milam and Kimbrell appeared at the home/store with Emmett Till. ‘…I think they probably asked me who, if [REDACTED] I believe. Because I really think no matter [REDACTED]. I thought [REDACTED].’… I think he (Roy Bryant) told me he was going to take him back.'”

Retired FBI agent Dale Killinger recalled this 2005 interview with Bryant Donham when reached by CNN. He confirmed to CNN this redacted testimony in the FBI report was from Bryant Donham.

Killinger says Bryant Donham told him she remembered “that they had brought him (Till) in to her.”

“She said Emmett didn’t say anything,” Killinger recalls of his interview with Bryant Donham. “She did say, in 2005, something to the effect of, ‘I couldn’t have identified him,’ so as far as I know, she’s never said that she did state that the boy was Emmett Till,” Killinger said.

Additionally, Bryant Donham’s unpublished memoir obtained by CNN also contradicts her court testimony that she never saw Till again. But it provides different details from what she told the FBI.

The draft memoir, written after she spoke to Killinger, says:

“J.W. and a friend of his walked in with the Emmett between them. Each was holding one of his arms, but it was clear they did not seem to have harmed that they had done nothing to harm him. If he was bruised, I couldn’t tell. They stood between the kitchen and bathroom, with the young man standing in the center. Roy and I were on the other side of the kitchen.

Roy turned to me and growled, ‘Is that him?’

Before I even saw his face, I softly answered, ‘No, it’s not him.’

I couldn’t even look at the young man. I knew that he was there, but I couldn’t look at him. I didn’t want him hurt, so I told Roy that he had the wrong person. I said again, with a stronger voice, ‘It’s not him, you have the wrong person.’

Roy raised his voice and almost screamed at me, ‘Damn it, look at him, you haven’t even looked at him!’

I looked straight at Emmett and said even stronger, ‘No, it’s not him.’ ‘You have the wrong person, it’s NOT him.’ All I could think was, ‘Take him home, please take him home.’ I was terrified for his safety. His uncle, as I later found out, begged them to just beat Emmett up there at his house, not to take him away.

To my utter disbelief, the young man flashed me a strange smile and said, ‘Yes, it was me,’ or something to that effect.”

According to historian and author Timothy Tyson, Bryant Donham gave the unpublished memoir to him to edit when he interviewed her in 2008.

But her then-husband Roy Bryant and then-brother-in-law J.W. Milam, in an interview with Look Magazine in 1956 republished by PBS, said they didn’t stop to ask Bryant Donham to identify Till. In that interview, Bryant and Milam stated that “had there been any doubt as to the identity of the ‘Chicago boy who done the talking,’ Milam and Bryant would have stopped at the store for Carolyn to identify him,” but say Till didn’t deny it was him.

Grand jury declines to indict

In 2007, a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict Bryant Donham on charges.

The changing accounts over time from Bryant Donham about her encounter with Emmett has fueled calls for the state of Mississippi and the federal government to re-open the case and conduct a full investigation, examining all newly uncovered documents in contrast with previously known and reviewed evidence.

“It has been a tremendous amount of trauma. I still feel like the weight is on our shoulders. We found the new evidence, and so we just want justice served,” Terri Watts, Emmett’s cousin, told CNN.

CNN has been unable to reach Bryant Donham.

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