Lake: AAFS Hosts Emmett Till Lecture at Chicago Cultural Center

Dale Killinger answers question at Emmett Till lecture

Dale Killinger (far left) answers an audience member's question (Photo by Julian Zeng)

Lake Stop IconBy Julian Zeng
The Red Line Project

Posted: Monday, Feb. 28, 2011

Forensic science cannot undo what happened to Emmett Till in 1955, but forensic science can turn back the clock and assist in achieving some sort of justice for his death, the president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences said to a Chicago panel recently.

Joseph P. Bono, MA, current president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, opened a lecture that discussed the forensic efforts that went into identifying Till’s body and analyzing evidence to better understand one of the most famous murders in American history. 

The lecture, entitled “Emmett Till -- Forensic Scientists on the Case That Sparked America’s Civil Rights Movement,” was hosted in collaboration with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs on Sunday, Feb. 20 at the Chicago Cultural Center. 

Lecture members at AAFS lecture
AAFS members answer questions at a lecture on Emmett Till.  From left: Dale Killinger,
Ed Donoghue, Joseph P. Bono, Rev. Wheeler Parker (Photo by Julian Zeng)

A severe and brutal act of racial violence, the murder of Emmett Till in the 1950s was a shocking event that resonated with the entire country.  Till, a young African-American, was killed in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. To this day, Till's death has stood as a precursor to the nationwide civil rights movement.  

Bono, adjunct instructor in the Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, addressed howTill’s death is still important to this day, which emerged as the main theme of the lecture. Having devoted almost all of his adult life to forensic sciences, Bono realized that today, “forensic science can impact ... what happened back in in the 1950s, 1960s.”

To illustrate this, Dale Killinger, the AAFS Past-President and FBI Supervisory Special Agent, described his being assigned to investigating the case years later, in hopes of gaining more concrete and irrefutable evidence of how exactly Till died.  

The difficulties that faced Killinger and his FBI investigation were steep, as no prosecutors, jury members, key witnesses, etc. from the murder trial were alive to provide help.  Slowly, over time, Killinger and the investigators in his squad, were able to uncover bits and pieces of substantial evidence that revealed the true nature of the week in 1955 in which Till was killed.

“We found a trial transcript, we found an alleged murder weapon, we found many things, many nuggets to facts,” Killinger said.  “We are fact-finders.  We seek the truth and we seek justice, and we may not have found justice in a way when you think of it, having a person in jail for Emmett Till, but what we did was we sparked a part of that civil rights cold case initiative that the FBI has today.

“We sparked over 100 investigations in the government, so now when you have 100 families with a little bit of hope and a 100 cases where we’ll find a little bit more of the truth.”

Killinger admitted he had no knowledge whatsoever about Till at the time he was assigned the case, prompting him to visit the library and begin his research. Killinger recalled reaching out to a man who was an attorney in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and asking him about Till’s murder. 

“For about 30 seconds, there was no response, and we he finally spoke, he was almost in tears," Killinger said. "And he said, ‘Dale, I can barely speak about Emmett Till.  It had such an impact on my life.’”

Killinger recounted how this was his first true glimpse into the deep impact this murder has had on generations of people, especially African-Americans. 

Rev. Wheeler Parker, a Till family friend, gave personal accounts of how he traveled from Chicago to Mississippi with Till and the events that transpired while they were in the South -- one of the most gripping moments coming when Till was kidnapped right from the room in which Parker himself was staying. 

Parker stressed the importance of the Till case, which is certainly relevant even in this day and age.  

“We must talk about history, ‘cause if we don’t talk about history, you’re subject to repeat it,” Parker said.  “Not only does history show where you were, [it shows] where you are, and where you need to go.” 

Parker also illustrated how right after Till’s murder, subsequent events occurred that combined to spark the civil rights movement. 

“Things really came together [after Till’s death], it was a conglomeration of Rosa Parks and other things that really snowballed and caused the civil rights movement and its beginnings,” said Parker.

The third presenter of the evening was Ed Donoghue, Regional Medical Examiner at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in Savannah, Ga. Donoghue discussed the historic case from a purely concrete forensic science standpoint. 

Donoghue’s presentation was in-depth and detailed, with visual aids projected onscreen to show autopsy reports and photos of Till after his body was discovered.  This new analysis was key for medical examiners like Donoghue to investigate Till’s death thoroughly.  

One unmistakable shred of evidence when identifying Till’s body was a ring he was wearing at the time of his death.  This ring was a one-of-a-kind item, and Donoghue explained how “great care has to exercised in identifying bodies by personal effect.” 

“Identification is a process where you compare information that was recorded before death with information that you obtain from the examination of the body,” according to Donoghue.  “If they correlate, the identity is established.”

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