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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Justice Will Investigate Till Murder Again

Aired May 10, 2004 - 11:05   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Now we'll go live to Washington, D.C. The Justice Department holding a news conference. They plan to reopen a murder investigation of a murder that is almost 50 years old and helped inspire parts of the civil rights fight.
Let's listen in.

ALEXANDER ACOSTA, ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR CIVIL RIGHTS: Good morning.

The Department of Justice and the Mississippi District Attorney's Office for the 4th Judicial District today are opening an investigation into the 1955 murder of Emmett Till.

In August of 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy, a Chicago resident, was dragged from his bed, kidnapped and murdered while visiting family in Mississippi. His crime was that he purportedly whistled at a white woman and perhaps touched her hand.

Less than a month after Till's body was pulled from the river, an all-white jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam of Emmett's murder. The jury acquitted despite eyewitness testimony as to the defendant's identities. In closing, defense counsel had appealed to jury members' white heritage, suggesting that their Anglo-Saxon fathers would turn over in their graves if they lacked the courage to free these men.

The jury deliberated only 67 minutes. One juror suggested that it would not have taken that long if they hadn't stopped to drink a pop.

Bryant and Milam subsequently sold their story to a magazine detailing how they beat Emmett, shot him in the head, tied a metal fan to his neck with barbed wire and pushed his body into the river. But because they had been acquitted they could not be tried again.

When Emmett Till's body was returned to Chicago, his grieving mother insisted on an open casket funeral. She intended to let all the world see what they had done to her little boy. Over four days, thousands witnessed the injuries on Emmett's body.

Pictures and magazine articles of Emmett's murder shocked our country. Emmett Till's brutal murder and grotesque miscarriage of justice moved this nation. The murder of Emmett Till stands at the crossroads of the American civil rights movement. Although too late to save Emmett, the slaying helped galvanize opposition to the brutality of segregation and Jim Crow. In fact, it was just 100 days later that Rosa Parks famously refused to move to the back of the bus.

Bryant and Milam have since passed away. However, renewed interest in the case has suggested information that they may not have acted alone. If indeed others are implicated and they can be identified, they can still be prosecuted. While the five-year federal statute of limitations in effect in 1955 has since expired, prosecution can still be brought in state court.

As the murder was committed in Mississippi's 4th Judicial District, jurisdiction to prosecute would lie with District Attorney Joyce Chiles.

Accordingly, I am pleased to announce a federal-state partnership to investigate the murder of Emmett Till. Federal prosecutors and FBI agents today are being assigned to investigate the Emmett Till murder in partnership with the district attorney's office and local law enforcement.

ACOSTA: Their findings will serve as the basis for any possible prosecution.

I would like to thank the district attorney, District Attorney Joyce Chiles, for her dedication to this matter. I'd also like to thank Jim Greenlee, United States attorney for the Northern District of Mississippi, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for providing the manpower to investigate this murder.

Though his murder was brutal and tragic, Emmett Till unwittingly played a pivotal role in launching the modern civil rights movement. We owe it to Emmett Till, we owe it to his mother and to his family, and we owe it to ourselves to see if after all these years any additional measure of justice is still possible. Thank you.

QUESTION: This case has drawn a fair amount of attention just in the last year or so. Tell us what you can about evidence that has surfaced in the past year or so with the documentary and other things.

ACOSTA: You are correct. During the production of a documentary and during other research as a result of additional attention on this case, some information has been brought to our attention that suggests that other individuals may have been involved in the murder. To the extent that other individuals are involved, we owe it, as I said, to Emmett, to his mother, to family, and to ourselves to investigate whether in fact others were involved, whether their identities can be found, given the age of the case, whether they live, and if so, it would be appropriate, right and, I think, necessary to prosecute.

QUESTION: Can you expand on...

ACOSTA: We're opening a criminal investigation. I can't expand into details of what evidence may or may not have been brought to our attention.

QUESTION: Have you had a chance to review that information or the evidence?

ACOSTA: We have received information. Our attorneys and our prosecutors have conducted preliminary reviews into it.

ACOSTA: At this point, we think what is appropriate is to open an investigation. As you may know, the FBI did not investigate this matter 50 years ago. And so, we believe it's appropriate to send FBI agents to investigate the matter. Because jurisdiction lies with the district attorney, we are working with her and partnering with her. Any final prosecutorial decisions would be hers.

QUESTION: There have been several cases like this reopened in recent years. You had the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) prosecution. That was successful. You've had the three civil rights workers that were murdered still in the '60s, that has not produced anything so far.

What's your sense of how difficult this will be, assuming you can go forward with some kind of a case? You've got -- it's so old, you've got witnesses if there are any. Is there really any chance...

ACOSTA: You know, it's a nearly 50-year-old case. The two individuals who were charged initially with the murder are now dead. But as part of the documentary and as part of renewed interest, additional information was brought to our attention.

Even if it's incredibly difficult, we -- you know, it's an appropriate use of department resources to investigate matters such as this.

For those that are familiar with the civil rights movement, the murder of Emmett Till was pivotal. His open casket funeral in the north galvanized support. It brought the brutality of segregation and Jim Crow to the eyes of citizens and Americans in Illinois and Chicago.

For the first time, many people witnessed what it was like to be subjected to lynchings and other actions that took place in the South. And so, it really did galvanize support. One hundred days later, Rosa Parks made her courageous stand, or sit.

And in matters such as this, we owe it to them and to the civil rights movement to look into it if an investigation may uncover evidence of additional actors.

QUESTION: Can you just clarify the federal statute of limitations for this type of crime? Is it different then than it is now?

ACOSTA: It is different. In 1955, there was a five-year statute of limitation in effect. The statute of limitations in effect at the time of the crime is the statute of limitations that applies.

It gets complicated. For those who are interested, I'm happy to provide a later backgrounder.

But since then -- the basics is since then it has been amended so that in cases where there has been a murder, the statute of limitations restriction of five years would not apply if it took place today. Because it was in effect in 1955, it has run.

ACOSTA: That being said, Mississippi, the state of Mississippi has full authority to bring a prosecution. District Attorney Chiles has full authority to do so. And we are, in essence, lending our investigatory resources to her and to the state to investigate this matter and to provide whatever information may be required to bring a prosecution if appropriate.

QUESTION: By restating what's gone down in history, that Bryant and Milam were the two people who kidnapped and murdered Till, does that mean that you're not looking at any other people who might have been involved in the actual abduction and murder and are potentially looking at accomplices who were involved in either covering it up or...

(CROSSTALK)

ACOSTA: Let me be clear.

Bryant and Milam sold their story to a magazine, so we are aware of what they said in the story that they told the magazine. We have been told that other individuals may have been involved in the actions leading up to or around this incident. And so, we are doing a broad investigation to see if other individuals were involved in the murder and the kidnapping or in other crimes associated with the murder and kidnapping of Emmett Till.

QUESTION: So you're saying it's possible, it's at least an open question whether others are involved in the actual kidnapping and/or murder?

ACOSTA: It's a matter we'll look into.

QUESTION: And then just in terms of timing, did you say that -- I think you used the word "today" to describe the activity of FBI agents. Are they starting today? Have people been in Mississippi?

ACOSTA: People will be assigned today. Today we are opening the investigation.

My staff has been in Mississippi to discuss this matter with the district attorney, to negotiate and develop the partnership. But the investigation is being opened today.

QUESTION: Was the Justice Department ever asked to get involved in the years after the Till case? And if so, was the decision (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

ACOSTA: I don't have access to the historical record from 1955.

QUESTION: You said this new evidence was brought to your attention.

QUESTION: I wonder who brought that evidence to your attention? ACOSTA: It's a criminal matter. I've said what I can say about...

QUESTION: Who asked you to review the case? How long have you been reviewing the case? Since what time?

ACOSTA: We have received several letters from civil parties on this matter. I've pretty much said what I can say with respect to specific evidence.

QUESTION: Can you say how long this has been under review?

ACOSTA: I've said what I can say with respect to specific evidence.

QUESTION: What about the level of federal resources, the general idea in terms of the number of prosecutors or FBI?

ACOSTA: That will be a function of what we uncover as the investigation proceeds. As with all investigations, we will put as many folks as we think are necessary and appropriate to fully investigate this matter, to produce a report that will disclose whatever evidence we find regarding the killing of Emmett Till, regarding his murder. And we'll track down whatever leads are necessary in order to see if individuals can be identified who were responsible in addition to the two who were already tried.

QUESTION: In terms of initially, can you give us any sense in terms of initially...

ACOSTA: I'll provide you with a precise number.

QUESTION: You said that you received several letters. Was the investigation launched in any part because of media reports on the case?

ACOSTA: I believe, as the first question said, renewed interest in this matter has led to information that has been shared with the Justice Department. To the extent that renewed interest led to information that has been shared with the Justice Department, then certainly renewed interest contributed to our receiving that information and therefore has contributed to our looking into this matter.

QUESTION: When you were talking about the documentary that Rock Simmons (ph) renewed, has that documentary -- is it out there already or is it still in the works? And in terms of that, have you worked with those film producers at all on this?

ACOSTA: I believe the documentary is in the public sphere. I'll confirm that in about one minute.

QUESTION: Has this issue been on the Justice Department's radar screen -- the Bush administration's Justice Department radar screen prior to the movie? And also, regarding the movie and people who are watching it, what sphere of folks? Was it people who were related to people who were focused with this case who called in? Was it African-Americans? Was it...

ACOSTA: I can't say who has been watching the movie.

What I can say is that the matter was brought to my attention.

ACOSTA: Information was discussed with me. I asked my staff to travel to Mississippi to speak with the district attorney in Mississippi to develop this partnership.

We at the Justice Department believe that it is appropriate in cases such as this where we are given information that other actors may have been involved to fully investigate the matter.

Thank you.

KAGAN: We've been listening to a news conference from the Justice Department, talking about how federal prosecutors, investigators and the district attorney in Money, Mississippi, will be reopening the murder investigation into the killing of Emmett Till.

He was a teenager from Chicago back in 1955. He was visiting Mississippi when he unknowingly broke some unwritten laws of the Jim Crow south. He was dragged from his uncle's home, and he was beaten and killed in the middle of the night.

Two men were arrested and charged with his murder. They were both acquitted very quickly by an all white, all male jury. They later then sold their story to a magazine and gave a very brutal account of how they killed Emmett Till.

Now they -- now this new investigation will look into whether there were others involved and other identities that can be charged in the case.

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