May 18, 2005
From the New York Times
F.B.I. Discovers Trial Transcript in Emmett Till Case
SHAILA DEWAN and ARIEL HART
The F.B.I. said yesterday that it had obtained a copy of the long-lost transcript from the 1955 trial of two men in the murder of Emmett Till, the black teenager whose killing galvanized the civil rights movement and is the subject of a new inquiry.
The copy, described as faint and barely legible, is the only publicly known record of the trial, in which an all-white jury in Tallahatchie County, Miss., acquitted the defendants. Both men, who later confessed the crime to Look magazine, are now dead. The investigation seeks to determine whether anyone still living may also have been involved.
Emmett was a 14-year-old Chicagoan who was visiting relatives in the town of Money when, accused of whistling at a white woman, he was dragged from his bed, beaten beyond recognition and shot, his body dumped into the Tallahatchie River. A photograph of his grotesquely misshapen face at his funeral became emblematic of Jim Crow horror.
Robert J. Garrity Jr., the F.B.I.'s special agent in charge in Mississippi, said in an interview yesterday that the newly found transcript would allow investigators to review the testimony of witnesses who are now dead and also compare living witnesses' accounts today with what they said in court 50 years ago.
Mr. Garrity would not say how the bureau had obtained the transcript, and declined to release it. County officials have said they have no file on the case.
Investigators verified the transcript's authenticity, Mr. Garrity said, by comparing it with what people who had seen the trial remembered, and with a book written by Steve Whitaker, a scholar who had a copy until his basement flooded in the 1980's.
The newfound copy was first reported yesterday by The Clarion-Ledger, the Jackson daily. Mr. Garrity described it as a "copy of a copy of a copy."
"It was in pretty poor shape," he said, "so we had to go through it line by line, word by word, and retype it" before it was given to the local prosecutor pursuing the case.
The transcript presumably records the defense argument that prosecutors had not proved that the body was Emmett's, and that there was therefore no proof of his murder. Jurors cited that argument as the primary reason for their acquittal of the two defendants, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam.
As part of its inquiry, which was prompted by two documentaries suggesting that other people had been involved, the F.B.I. plans to exhume Emmett's body, buried near Chicago. No autopsy was ever performed, and investigators want an official determination of the cause of death, as well as DNA testing to confirm the victim's identity.
The bureau will ultimately turn over its findings to Joyce Chiles, the district attorney with jurisdiction, who will decide if new charges are warranted. Eventually, Mr. Garrity said, the findings and the transcript will be given to the National Archives, where they will be accessible to historians.
Scholars and filmmakers have long sought a copy of the transcript. But other important pieces of evidence have long been lost as well. For instance, the cotton gin fan that was attached to Emmett's neck with barbed wire to weigh down his body in the river disappeared when the county courthouse was remodeled.
Leesha Faulkner, a reporter who covers courts and government for The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, said old documents were often hard to find in Mississippi.
"If something didn't suit somebody, they took it home and put it in their attic and never said anything about it," Ms. Faulkner said. In the 1980's, she said, she was at an auction in Greenwich Village when she found government photos, and a state official's detailed account, of the 1962 rioting by whites in response to the earliest desegregation at the University of Mississippi.
Until yesterday, the last person known to have had a trial transcript in the Till case was Mr. Whitaker, now a researcher for the Florida Department of Health. As a graduate student in 1962, he was assigned to revisit the trial for his master's thesis in political science. He says the jurors, who received him openly because he had grown up in the county, told him they did not doubt that Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam had been responsible for the killing.
Mr. Whitaker says he obtained his copy of the transcript, a thick sheaf of onionskin with a binder clip, from the lead defense lawyer, J. J. Breland, after interviewing him for hours over a fifth of Jack Daniel's.
"He just gave it to me," Mr. Whitaker said in an interview yesterday. "They looked on it as assisting me with my research. They never asked for it back."
Mr. Whitaker said he believed that the transcript had been ordered by the defense team and had never been an official court document.
According to Mr. Whitaker's master's thesis, his copy did not include the lawyers' closing arguments, in which the defense told the jurors that even in the face of national press coverage, "every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men," and warning that the jurors' "forefathers would turn over in their graves if these boys were convicted on such evidence as this."
But the transcript now in the possession of the F.B.I. does presumably capture one of the trial's most electrifying moments: Moses Wright, Emmett's great-uncle, when asked to identify the men who had taken the boy from Mr. Wright's home, pointed to one defendant and said, "There he is; that's the man," and then immediately identified the other.
Mr. Wright fled Mississippi that night.