Ethics Quiz: Grandstanding Or Justice?


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.

17 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Grandstanding Or Justice?

  1. I think the standard black activist line would be something along the lines of “it’s never too late to right an old wrong.” However, the statute of limitations for kidnapping I’m sure has long run. Could she be charged with murder, for which there is no statute of limitations? Maybe with manslaughter, but I don’t think the charge would stick. There are probably not enough witnesses still around to make a prima facie case. Besides, what value would there be in locking an 80+ year-old woman up in the geriatric ward in some prison? It would give the BLM types an opportunity to crow and strut, but that’s not a valid reason to do anything.

  2. Would it survive a “Rost” motion? What is the statute of limitations on abduction there? Rost would require documentation of timely attempts to locate the subject and serve the warrant. Rost requires timely service of warrants so that a defendant has opportunity to find witnesses and evidence to support a defense. I think it would be unethical to serve the warrant–initiate a prosecution — that could not be won. That is the basic burden on prosecutors.

  3. “[U]sing the process as the punishment, [is] unethical, always.

    Wow. Has anyone told the Trump-hunting Democrats (and Ms. Wyoming) THAT?

    • It’s like the police used to say: you might beat the rap, but you won’t beat the ride. To expand: you might be found not guilty at the end of the day, but for now, we’re going to put you in handcuffs, throw you in the back of the police cruiser, take you downtown, lock you up for a while, browbeat you, or maybe just beat you, lock you up again until you can post bail, and leave you with criminal charges hanging over your head for a while. Even if you get found not guilty, it sucks.

      • Or as the late, great Harry Reid was so fond of saying, “We won, didn’t we?” All you need to do is make an accusation!

  4. My thoughts are similar to that of others: the statute of limitations has probably run.

    The caveat: whether charges for felony murder would still be open. If she was involved in the kidnapping, if that was a felony, and if Till died, there could be a felony murder charge. IF there is no statute of limitations on that, the case is not AS clear cut.

    Still, the evidence now appears too weak. There is some evidence she was helping search for Till with them. There is also evidence that a voice “lighter” than a man’s voice, identified Till. The latter piece of evidence BARELY has probative value (and that is if the witness to that voice is still alive).

    It would be unethical for the prosecutor to bring a case that the prosecutor knows can not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. I think that rule applies here.


  5. In my opinion, no.

    First, too much time has passed for the warrant without some kind of verification process to ensure its validity. Plus, the witnesses providing the evidence for warrant are likely dead, and I suspect much of the evidence supporting the warrant is no longer available to be tested.

    There appears to be no bar to arresting her, but very likely the prosecution would be hamstrung by multiple evidentiary deficiencies, including death of witnesses, infirmity of still-living witness affecting the lucidity of their testimony, change in evidence collection and legal standards for prosecution. Merely serving the warrant and arresting her serve no purpose — the prosecution must have some reasonable facsimile of a kidnapping case against her, and for a case of this age, it needs to be very, very strong.

    Is it grandstanding? I don’t think that would automatically be my judgment. There are good faith arguments that this woman should not escape punishment if she is in fact guilty. What troubles me is the lack of empathy Till’s family is showing for an aged and infirm woman. I understand the desire for revenge, even if it is unethical, but when that desire shows callous disregard for things such as the passage of 70 years, it becomes much uglier.

    So I would say it is not ethical to arrest her now for the simple reason that prosecuting the case is likely to be unsuccessful, and the effect 70 years on both the case and people involved cannot be ignored. I would also say that the family’s lack of empathy for the age and infirmity of Donham is another reason not to do it.

  6. Fucking Progressives.

    Not only has the statute of limitations run, but what’s the justification this week that wasn’t there last?

    There’s an arrest warrant? Sure. Act on it. OK, she’s arrested. Now what? The DA would have to charge. What justification doe the DA have to charge her today that wasn’t there over the last 50 years? They found a mouldery arrest warrant? Is the expectation that that’s enough? Is that what they want the new standard to be? Get a judge to sign a warrant, and lock them up?

    This is yet another mask-slip moment. They don’t care about the issues, they don’t care about the process, they don’t care about police reform. This is just another raw-nerve cry for their preferred policies.

  7. The tide in this post and comments leans heavily toward no, it is not ethical. How, then, do we think of the conviction just a few days ago in Germany of a 101-year-old man who was accused of 3500 counts of accessory to murder when serving as a guard in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp? Yes, his conviction is for a serious crime, accessory to murder. Could Donham be charged similarly? And what are the differences in statute of limitations between Germany and Mississippi? Should we cease seeking out former Nazis to charge with crimes they committed even farther in the past than the Till case? I am not completely convinced that charging Donham now is entirely unethical. I make these comments as a non-lawyer.

    • I thought of the old war crimes defendants immediately too, but it’s not analogous. Making a false accusation that others use as an excuse to kill someone is a long, long way from mass genocide. In general, I have ethics doubts about the war crime trials of the Nazis and Japanese in general, and especially the low level thugs like “Ivan the Terrible.” In their cases, it is grandstanding, and it is pure vengeance, not justice. A fair trial is impossible. I get the need for “closure,” but it is extra-legal, and ultimately unethical.

  8. My answer to the ethics quiz is that no, she should not be prosecuted. It just isn’t feasible to achieve any fair degree of justice at this point.
    As a retired deputy sheriff, the first thing that struck me as odd in the news reports that I read concerning this “discovery” was the clear implication that the “lost” warrant itself was somehow a bar to her being arrested and prosecuted at some time during the past 67 years. It may be news to many people, but paper warrants get lost (or at least temporarily “misplaced”) with some regularity. In my state, any officer of the court with knowledge of the original warrant could have asked for the warrant to be re-issued by the same court that issued the original. In my state this is referred to as issuing an “alias warrant” or an “alias writ.” All warrants issued are logged in actual docket books by the clerk of the issuing court (and were even back in 1955) in most jurisdictions. The court clerks also maintain the supporting documents for issuing a warrant (affidavits of complaint, etc.) and all this documentation must be maintained (either on paper or digitally) forever. So, it wasn’t like, “Gee we would really like to arrest and charge this woman, if we could just find that pesky warrant.”
    To me this suggests that for at least a significant period of years, there was no interest (by the courts or prosecutors) in arresting and trying the woman, especially since the men charged in the case had been acquitted, and the case against her personally was likely weak to begin with and more a matter of guilt by association. The court documents in most southern counties I know of would normally not be sent to any sort of archives/storage for at least twenty years. It does seem odd that the prosecutor did not simply file a nolle prosequi motion, or even a motion to dismiss the charge altogether. At this point, who knows?
    Certainly, at this late date, proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a fair trial is darned near impossible, and any trial resulting from serving this warrant would as a practical matter be just an emotion-packed show trial to appease the family, BLM and their allies. The justice system in Mississippi screwed this one up, and sometimes that which has been screwed up cannot be unscrewed.
    Finally, I would be curious as to how those clamoring for the old lady’s prosecution and imprisonment would feel about the matter if it were an equally old and equally infirm black woman who was alleged to have made a false statement in 1955 that may have been the cause of an innocent white man being killed. What would “restorative justice” advocates call for?

  9. The family wants justice for Emmett Till. All they want is for Bryant to appear in court as she was supposed to- they have not asked for anything more. That is different from “revenge”. And even if there is overlap, can’t you understand it? Wouldn’t you want justice and revenge if you found your 14 year old kid brutally tortured beyond recognition?

    The warrant was not lost. It was admitted that the sheriff did not want to bother Mrs. Bryant. Mrs. Bryant has admitted to her involvement and lie, yes many years later. Mr. Bryant and his brother admitted to killing Emmett Till after the trial. Many bystanders heard his torture… What more evidence do you want? Where is the justice of law here? The law lives and breathes, and we change it. We have pushed back the statue of limitations on rape and childhood abuse.

    Justice for Emmett Till. He was a CHILD. Hi blood cries out from the grave.

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