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DOJ Closes Cold Case Re-Investigation of Murder of Emmett Till

The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Mississippi announced Monday that it had closed its investigation into a witness’s alleged recantation of her account of the events leading up to the murder of Emmett Till.

The investigation was conducted in conjunction with the Mississippi District Attorney’s Office, Fourth District. Till’s murder is one of the most infamous acts of racial violence in our country’s history.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, Acting U.S. Attorney Clay Joyner, District Attorney W. Dewayne Richardson and career attorneys and employees from the Civil Rights Division and the FBI met with members of Till’s family, including a family member who had been a witness to the events preceding Till’s abduction and murder.

The purpose of the meeting was to explain the reasons for closing the investigation and to give the family an opportunity to ask questions about the department’s investigation and conclusions.

The department conducted the investigation as part of its Cold Case Initiative and pursuant to the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act (Till Act). The Cold Case Initiative is a comprehensive effort to identify and investigate racially motivated murders committed decades ago.

As in all federal cases, the department may only bring a case with laws that were enacted at the time of the crime and are still within the statute of limitations. However, under the Till Act, the federal government is authorized to assist state and local jurisdictions with investigating and, where possible, prosecuting such crimes.

Because there were no federal hate crime statutes at the time of Till’s death, the case was not then opened for a federal investigation. In 2004, the department opened an investigation into Till’s murder as part of its Cold Case Initiative, but determined after a thorough review that it lacked jurisdiction to bring federal charges.

The department reopened the matter in 2017 after a professor alleged in a book he had written that a white woman, who was a witness to crucial events leading up to Till’s abduction and murder, had recanted her previous accounts of those events. In response, the department and the FBI examined whether the woman had recanted and, if so, whether she had information that would allow prosecution of any living person.

The government’s re-investigation found no new evidence suggesting that either the woman or any other living person was involved in Till’s abduction and murder. Even if such evidence could be developed, no federal hate crime laws existed in 1955, and the statute of limitations has run on the only civil rights statutes that were in effect at that time. As such, even if a living suspect could now be identified, a federal prosecution for Till’s abduction and murder would not be possible.

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