PERSPECTIVE - OCTOBER 1995
by Wally Graves
FROM THE BEGINNING the trial was destined to be an American landmark: We had the crime of passion, the brutality of the killing, the overwhelming circumstantial evidence and perhaps most notably - the unprecedented national media coverage (culminating in a stunningly quick verdict).
And, of course, the issue of race. Black against white.
The accused and the jury of one race; the murdered of another.
The Eureka paper accurately called it "one of the most explosive American trials in years," a trial which "has stirred racial anger" throughout the country.
The evidence brought by witness after witness pointed overwhelmingly to the defendant's guilt: the location, the vehicle, the circumstances before and after the event, the lack of a plausible alibi (though no murder weapon was found).
On the one hand we had what the prosecution argued was premeditated murder, but on the other it was noted that the social climate, and police mentality, reminded one of "Germany at the beginning of Hitler's rise."
The prosecutor reminded the jurors that they must remember - no matter how they felt otherwise - they were dealing with a "cowardly act - it was a brutal, unnecessary killing."
To most Americans the verdict of "not guilty" in the face of such evidence would be a travesty, though some acknowledged its inevitability, since the jury would be going home to neighbors who, in their hearts, overwhelmingly favored the accused in spite of the evidence.
The defense attorney unabashedly played the race card. He reminded the jury that a verdict of "guilty" would haunt them: "I'm sure that every last [and here he alluded to their race] one of you has the courage" to free the accused.
The jurors responded to the defense attorney's plea.
They returned the verdict within hours.
In the courtroom - the Eureka paper reported - there were "happy hugs on hearing of the verdict" and "congratulations of friends and neighbors."
Thus, on Sept. 24, 1955, two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, walked away freed and acquitted, in Sumner, Miss., of the murder of a black 14-year-old named Emmett Till.
The jury took one hour and seven minutes to decide that there was "some doubt" about the victim's identity. The body had been so brutally disfigured, maybe the corpse which had been dragged from the Tallahatchie River was not Till, but somebody else.
Following the trial, outraged Americans mounted candlelight vigils and marches. The justice (or injustice) of America's judicial system was challenged. The freed men sold for $4,000 their story of what really happened. Yes, they were involved in the boy's death.
They lived out their lives ostracized from the very neighbors who had silently hoped for their acquittal.
Wally Graves has written many books, articles and stories. His most recent contribution to the Journal was last month's "Cats."
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