The New York Times has a better article (via Prometheus 6) than the one I linked to last night. The Times article goes through the interesting history of the last copy of the transcript that had been known before the new one was found:
Investigators verified the transcript's authenticity, Mr. Garrity said, by comparing it with what people who had seen the trial remembered, and with a book written by Steve Whitaker, a scholar who had a copy until his basement flooded in the 1980's. . . .
Until yesterday, the last person known to have had a trial transcript in the Till case was Mr. Whitaker, now a researcher for the Florida Department of Health. As a graduate student in 1962, he was assigned to revisit the trial for his master's thesis in political science. He says the jurors, who received him openly because he had grown up in the county, told him they did not doubt that Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam had been responsible for the killing.
Mr. Whitaker says he obtained his copy of the transcript, a thick sheaf of onionskin with a binder clip, from the lead defense lawyer, J. J. Breland, after interviewing him for hours over a fifth of Jack Daniel's.
"He just gave it to me," Mr. Whitaker said in an interview yesterday. "They looked on it as assisting me with my research. They never asked for it back."
Mr. Whitaker said he believed that the transcript had been ordered by the defense team and had never been an official court document.
The Times article is also good because it touches on two aspects of the American racist power structure that obstructs justice in those Civil Rights era murder cases which have actually been brought to trial. First reason mentioned is that the evidence keeps disappearing.
Scholars and filmmakers have long sought a copy of the transcript. But other important pieces of evidence have long been lost as well. For instance, the cotton gin fan that was attached to Emmett's neck with barbed wire to weigh down his body in the river disappeared when the county courthouse was remodeled.
Leesha Faulkner, a reporter who covers courts and government for The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, said old documents were often hard to find in Mississippi.
"If something didn't suit somebody, they took it home and put it in their attic and never said anything about it," Ms. Faulkner said. In the 1980's, she said, she was at an auction in Greenwich Village when she found government photos, and a state official's detailed account, of the 1962 rioting by whites in response to the earliest desegregation at the University of Mississippi. (Emphasis added.)
The second reason mentioned is a social atmosphere that supports white supremacism. In their closing arguments in the 1955 murder trial, the defense lawyers told the jurors that
even in the face of national press coverage, "every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men," and warning that the jurors' "forefathers would turn over in their graves if these boys were convicted on such evidence as this."
What protected the two murderers in 1955 (who later confessed the crime in Look magazine) and the others since implicated, who may be prosecuted in a new trial, is not unique to the South and it is not only in the past. Remember the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE house in Philadelphia that I mentioned yesterday? Note this detail from Professor Kim's historical essay:
The MOVE members denied that they had fired on the police and there was little forensic evidence available at trial because the city had the house destroyed right after the gunfight -- notwithstanding that it was a crime scene that would normally have been secured (emphasis added).
The evidence wasn't just stashed in somebody's southern attic: it was destroyed outright by the city authorities. Moving further out of the South and into the immediate present, David Neiwert has made this important observation in connection to a rash of hate crimes in Davis, California.
"You have to recognize that most hate criminals see themselves as acting on the secret wishes of the community," he said. "If they get a slap on the wrist, they see that as tacit approval. Inevitably, that escalates.
Social approval of homegrown domestic terrorism against people of color, gays and lesbians, Jews and Muslims might not be stated quite so directly in courtroom arguments, but it is still a big part of the problem, along with the pervasive attitude that if we ignore them, the extremists will just go away. This is unfortunate, especially now, when white supremacist, antisemitic, anti-Muslim, homophobic extremism is on the rise (via David Neiwert) and its exponents are increasingly embraced by the mainstream.