A team searching a Mississippi courthouse basement for evidence about the infamous lynching of black teenager Emmett Till in 1955 stumbled upon the unserved arrest warrant charging Carolyn Bryant Donham— identified as “Mrs. Roy Bryant” on the document—with the 14-year-old boy’s abduction. Donham was the young woman who falsely claimed that Till had whistled at her and grabbed her, causing a mob of white men to murder him. The warrant was never served, apparently because the Jim Crow-era Mississippi sheriff didn’t feel a mother with two children should be prosecuted. Now Till’s family wants Donham, 88, arrested and tried...almost 70 years after the crime.
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz on this Independence Day weekend is…
Would it be ethical to do this?
I can see the arguments for it, but my verdict, I’m about 80% certain, is no.
Applying standard prosecutorial principles, the case is just too old. Even if a DA determined that he could convict the old woman with a jury acting on emotion rather than law, she shouldn’t. There are few witnesses alive, and the case couldn’t be proven to meet a reasonable doubt. The Justice Department declared the case beyond prosecution earlier this year, and I don’t see how the existence of the warrant changes anything.
The family wants revenge. I understand that, but revenge is not an ethical motivation. Prosecuting Donham now would be using the process as the punishment, and that’s unethical, always.