Deep source building and teamwork enabled AP to break news on the unearthing of the long-lost warrant for the white woman whose accusations led to the Black teen’s lynching.
“And I do not say this lightly: Holy shit.” That, from producer and Black List founder Franklin Leonard, sums up the collective reaction to the scoop by AP’s Jay Reeves and Emily Wagster Pettus: A search team had discovered the nearly 70-year-old unserved warrant for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant Donham.
Donham was at the center of the lynching of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black teenager whom the white woman accused of making improper advances in 1955. That unproven accusation led to Till’s abduction and grisly death, a horror that galvanized the civil rights movement.
Reeves, AP’s Birmingham, Alabama, correspondent and a member of AP’s race and ethnicity team, had reported earlier this year that relatives and activists were still seeking the long-lost warrant in hope of moving forward with a case against Donham, who was accused of kidnapping Till along with then-husband Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam but never taken into custody.
Chances of finding the original warrant seemed remote until the well-sourced Reeves got a tip — the document had been discovered in boxes of old records in the basement of a courthouse in Leflore County, Mississippi, where the abduction occurred. He confirmed it the next day with the court clerk and contacted Wagster Pettus, the statehouse reporter in Jackson, Mississippi.
Wagster Pettus promptly broke the news of the warrant’s discovery to the local sheriff himself, who said he would consult prosecutors about next steps. She also reached out to a county prosecutor who declined comment but cited the Justice Department’s decision last year to close its investigation of the Till case without additional charges. Combining their reporting, Reeves and Wagster Pettus talked with a University of Mississippi law professor who said a warrant from 1955 almost certainly wouldn't be acceptable before a court now, but with new evidence, the old warrant could be an important steppingstone toward new charges.
Donham, now in her 80s and most recently living in North Carolina, has not commented publicly on calls for her prosecution. But while the fate of the case against her is far from certain, it’s undeniable that this story from two veteran AP Deep South reporters made waves.
The story was used by more than 700 AP customers and a number of major outlets, including The Washington Post, Politico and NBC News, either used AP’s version or quoted AP in their own pieces. The story also played well on AP News, with most of the traffic coming from Facebook and Twitter, where it was among AP’s most-engaged tweets in June.
For breaking news on one of the country’s most notorious civil rights cases, underscoring how the legacy of grotesque racial injustice is not a relic of some distant past, Reeves and Wagster Pettus share this week’s Best of the Week — First Winner honors.