01 January 2010

The Ugky Side of Jury Nullification: Emmett Till

There are a lot of people out there who think that jury nullification is a panacea. The problem is that jury nullification is an application of the jurors' prejudices. No one thinks about how nullification can allow the dark sides of people to come to the fore and allow evil to triumph. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Emmett Till trial.

In 1955, Emmett Till was a 14 year old Black kid who was visiting relatives in Jackson, Mississippi. He was rude to a married White woman. That night at least two White men broke in while Till was asleep and dragged him off. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant took the youth off and beat him at gunpoint. Then, incensed that Till would not admit they were better than him or recant his statement that he had slept with white women, they shot him dead. They tied a fan to the neck of the body using barbed wire and through it into a river.

When Milam and Bryant were tried their attorneys trotted out the defense that there was no proof that Emmett Till was dead. Till's mother identified his body and a unique ring which had belonged to Till's father was found on the body. The defense attorneys argued that it was all a plot to help destroy the way of life of Southern white people. The jury took an hour to find the defendants not guilty.

The prejudices involved in the case are pretty clear, but in case none of you are up on your civil rights history here's a letter written to LIFE about the murder and trial:
Maybe the Emmett Till case will convince "smart alecky" Negroes to stay in the North where such things as the attempted assault of Mrs. Bryant are condoned. We do not want them in the South and will not have them even if it means drastic measures.

Mrs. Sarah White, Memphis, Tennessee
And, lest any of you might think there's a chance the defendants didn't do it - they confessed to a reporter after they were found not guilty.

No comments: