Pursuing Evidence in the Till Case, 50 Years Later

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the racially motivated murder of Emmett Till. Ed Gordon talks about the legal ramifications of the current forensic investigation into Till's death with G. Douglas Jones. The former U.S. attorney in Birmingham, Ala., also successfully prosecuted the last two suspects in that city's 1963 church bombing that killed four young girls.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Within the last few days, DNA tests from an autopsy have positively identified the remains of Emmett Till. In 1955, Till was a 14-year-old African-American who was tortured and murdered in rural Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a white woman. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of his killing. An all-white jury acquitted the suspects in Till's lynching. No one has ever been convicted of the crime. The question now is whether forensic evidence, retrieved as part of the FBI investigation, will lead to new arrests. Joining us to discuss the legal ramifications is G. Douglas Jones. He's the former US attorney in Birmingham, Alabama. He also successfully prosecuted the last two suspects in that city's 1963 church bombing that killed four young girls.

Mr. Jones, thanks for being with us. Greatly appreciate it.

Mr. G. DOUGLAS JONES (Former US Attorney): My pleasure, Ed.

GORDON: Mr. Jones, could you give us an indication, in terms of seeking justice, if you will, what the exhumation of the body and the confirmation that, in fact, this is Emmett Till, will do, if anything?

Mr. JONES: Well, I don't think it does a lot just for the case itself, but it does answer a question, and it's a very important question. Back in the '50s when this case was first tried, the defense, I believe, raised issues about whether or not the body that was discovered was, in fact, Emmett Till, the DNA has proved conclusively that it was. As a practical matter, unless there was some DNA evidence from another individual that was also found, it may not go very far in terms of just, you know, proving someone guilty. But I think just the important question of answering the fact and identifying the body as Emmett Till is a first step.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, as relates to trying to prosecute cold cases, some, as we see in this instance, 50 years old. There are a lot of people who are looking at the headlines of the last few months and assuming that we're going to be able to right wrongs of 50 years ago. How plausible is this really?

Mr. JONES: This case is, I think, going to be especially tough. Here--I don't know all of the facts, but I would suspect that the investigation conducted by Mississippi authorities 50 years ago was woefully inadequate, and you nearly got to start from scratch. In addition, you've got the two people who admitted to participating and conducting these murders are dead. And also, Ed, there was a sense in all of these cases that the authorities did not do the right job, that they closed the cases too early. And the fact that somebody is looking at this case, going to give it their all, give it their heart and their soul, that also means a lot, too. So there's a lot of good can come out of this.

GORDON: Many people got to know you by virtue of the headlines of the Thomas Blanton case and, of course, the Bobby Frank Cherry case that you were intricately involved in. Give us a sense of what kind of feeling you must have in assisting in bringing justice to bear?

Mr. JONES: Ed, I will candidly tell you it's the most significant thing that has ever occurred. It is the most humbling experience, particularly in my case, when you have children who died. There's probably, even today, three years after the Blanton case--actually four years after Blanton, three years after Cherry--there are still people that stop me on the street just to thank me for that work. It truly is one of those time--kind of cases that I wish every lawyer could handle because it changes your life. It changes the way you look at your judicial system. It's just one that will always be with me.

GORDON: And I would also think it changes to some degree, and perhaps only in a nuanced way, the way you perceive race. I'm curious how you see race and how we are and are not dealing with it in the country today.

Mr. JONES: Well, that's a very good question, because it does, I think, bring home in a very, very personal way the fact that we still have a long way to go in this country. Certainly, I think it gives everyone that's working on these cases a newfound sense of trying to make sure that the racial divides that we have are broken down. I speak about my cases all over the country, and people want to hear how Birmingham in the South can be moved to change and right the wrongs of the past, and I think it says a lot that the white sons of the South are now going back to pick up these cases and to try to show people that there are people of conscience, people of heart. And if we can spread that message and we can be the examples like that, then I think there will be a lot of good that can come out of these cases, more than just simply the justice to the victims.

GORDON: One can hope that is and will continue to be the case. Douglas Jones, thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. JONES: My pleasure, Ed. Thank you.

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