Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Once was lost, now it's found. Now what.

In the civil rights-era South, where autopsies were not performed on dead black bodies, where white men charged with murder went free to tell about it, it stands to reason that trial transcripts would go missing: the transcript of the 1955 trial in the murder of Emmett Till, for example. In February of this year, it was reported that a Florida State University professor had joined the ranks of those searching for this document, that he'd been looking for two years.

The trial took place in Charleston, county seat of Tallahatchie County, Miss. Today, there's not even a case file left. But it's first one thing and then another, isn't it? The FSU professor, Davis Houck,

said he was told that an Itta Bena man, a friend of Till's, had the transcript, but it was stolen by a prostitute after the couple got into an argument.

"Everybody's got their own story, and the stories keep spinning out," Houck said.

Steve Whitaker, a Charleston native, wrote his FSU master's thesis on the case in in 1963. He said the copy he got from the defense attorney was destroyed in a basement flood in his house.

They're not telling where, but the FBI has found a copy. "Amazing," Whitaker says. Possibly the transcript information will lead to indictments of people other than half-brothers J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, both dead now, the accused who walked. Though their after-the-fact confessions meant that the case was pretty much settled in public opinion, back in 1955-56 there was talk of a broader crime--one that might have involved black witnesses.

Professors David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito have been following the conspiracy leads for years now as part of their work on a biography of Mississippi civil rights leader Dr. T.R.M. Howard. Surely the transcript will help, but the Beitos don't seem very hopeful that it will lead to convictions, not does an assistant attorney general involved in the case.

Meanwhile, Cook County is asking to have oversight of the exhumation of Till's body.

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