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The next witness knew; he was Negro Willie Reed, 18, of Sunflower County, Miss., and he was so frightened he could hardly talk. He told his story: early on the morning after the kidnaping of Emmett Till, he had seen a boy who looked like Till's photographs in a truck with four white men. Soon afterward, he saw the truck outside a barn belonging to Milam's brother, and heard sounds inside "like someone being whipped." What sounds? "He say, 'oh,' " said Willie Reed, in a very low voice.
Later, the youth testified, he saw Milam come out "wearing a gun," then the truck was driven away. Afterward, he said, "I went home and got ready to go to Sunday school." Other witnesses confirmed part of his testimony.
Earnest Effort. The prosecutors for the State of MississippiGerald Chatham, due soon to retire for ill health, and Robert Smith, a Marine Corps hero and former FBI agentmade an earnest and honest effort to build their case at what can be assumed to be great social cost to themselves. They got no help from Tallahatchie's Sheriff H. C. Strider, a cotton planter (1,500 acres), who insisted that Till had been whisked away alive. "This whole thing was rigged," he said.
The white people in the region raised a defense fund approaching $10,000 for Defendants Bryant and Milam. They hired five of Sumner's resident lawyers, who produced expert witnessesincluding a doctor and an embalmerto testify that the bloated, decomposing body had been in the river for at least ten days, and therefore could not have been Emmett Till. Sheriff Strider took the stand for the defense and said the same thing: "If it had been one of my own boys, I couldn't have identified it." In most of the U.S., this conflict over the identity of the body could have been resolved by elementary instruments of police work.
When Mrs. Bryant, the woman whose grievance started the case, was called to the stand, the prosecution objected. Judge Swango sent the jury from the room while he heard her story in order to decide whether it was relevant. It was a tale eminently likely to make a Tallahatchie jury acquit her husband and brother-in-law even if the evidence against the accused had been six times as great as it was. Judge Swango ruled that her story was irrelevant to the actual issues before the court, and did not let the jury hear it.
Sacred Guarantee. Next day Prosecutor Smith in his closing argument told the jury: "You know, gentlemen, we have a Constitution in the U.S. and in Mississippi which guarantees life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to everybody.
Once we get to a point where we deprive any of our people of those, for whatever reason, then we cannot justify ourselves . . . and we cannot complain about what happens to us." The jury took just over an hour to decide: "Not guilty." A juror later explained: "If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken that long." When the verdict came in, Prosecutor Chatham stared across the courtroom.