Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mississippi Madness: The Story of Emmett Till

"Land of the Free"

In an unusual move, Tallahatchie Sheriff H.C. Strider was called to the stand to testify for the defense. Both Milam and Bryant declined to take the stand to testify in their own behalf. When Sheriff Strider was asked about the condition of the body he pulled out of the Tallahatchie, he described it as being badly decomposed.

"It was in mighty bad shape," he said, "The skin was slipping on the entire body." He went on to describe the high temperature of the river during the summer and the other bodies that were found in the river in the past. He was asked his opinion on how long this particular body may have been submerged. "I would say at least 10 days, if not 15," he replied. The sheriff said that this body was unrecognizable and he couldn't tell if it was a white man or a black man. "If one of my sons had been missing," he said, "I couldn't have told it was him. All I could tell it was a human being."

When it was time for the prosecution to sum up the case, District Attorney Robert Smith invoked the principles of justice. "Only so long as we preserve the rights of everyone, black and white, we can keep our way of life," he told the jury. "Emmett Till down here in Mississippi was a citizen of the United States; he was entitled to his life and liberty." Defense Attorney J.W. Kellum appealed to Southern traditions in his summation. "I want you to tell me where," he said, "under God's shining sun, is the land of the free and the home of the brave if you don't turn these boys loose; your forefathers will absolutely turn over in their graves."

The jury retired for deliberations at 2:46 p.m. on September 23. Mamie Till promptly left the courthouse and drove out of town. "I didn't want to be there for the verdict," she said later. In little over one hour, sixty-seven minutes to be precise, at 3:43 p.m., the jury returned to the box. "It would have been even shorter," one jury member later told a local reporter, "but we stopped to drink some pop." Jury foreman, J.A. Shaw, a farmer from the nearby town of Webb, read the decision.

"Not guilty!" replied Mr. Shaw. The courtroom was oddly quiet at first. It was a verdict that was both expected and yet feared. The defendants embraced their wives as photographers began to take their pictures. Milam and Bryant walked into the hallways and spoke with the crowd of reporters.

"I'm happy with the outcome," said J.W. Milam as he lit up cigars for himself and his half-brother.

"I'm glad to get loose," added Roy Bryant as he smiled for the press and kissed his wife who had tears of joy running down her cheeks. "I'm real happy at the result," beamed Carolyn. The commotion grew in the crowd as people began shouting. There were cheers and boos while some chairs were knocked to the ground. Deputies quickly moved in to keep the peace as the happy defendants posed for the press.

J.W. Milam (left), Roy Bryant and their wives exult in the verdict
J.W. Milam (left), Roy Bryant and
their wives exult in the verdict

Sheriff H. C. Strider, star witness for the defense, announced to reporters, "Well, I hope the Chicago niggers and the N.A.A.C.P. are satisfied!" One by one, the jury filed past Milam and Bryant, some even stopping to shake hands or offer congratulations.

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