ALSIP, Ill. - The earth above Emmett Till's grave was scraped away just after dawn yesterday, and steel cables hoisted his burial vault from the ground as family members prayed nearby.
The barrel-topped concrete vault containing Till's metal casket was raised to a flatbed truck and covered in a blue tarp. Seven squad cars then escorted the remains on the 20-mile trip to Chicago, where forensics experts waited to see whether they would shed new light on a murder that helped ignite the civil rights movement.
On the way to the cemetery gates, the procession passed by the crypt of Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who died in 2003. Her decision to hold an open-casket funeral for her son 50 years ago, despite his grisly murder and mutilation, sparked a backlash against racial violence and segregation in the South.
Last year the FBI reopened its investigation into Till's murder, a crime for which nobody has been convicted. In addition to interviewing witnesses and reviewing court transcripts, investigators now want to apply the latest scientific tests to the body, including DNA analysis to help confirm identity and high-tech scans that might give clues about the cause of death.
The first job will be to determine that the body in the vault is indeed Emmett Till.
Though Mamie Till-Mobely had identified her son before the burial, members of the all-white jury that acquitted two men of his murder in 1955 said they did not believe it was Till's body that authorities found in a river in Mississippi, tangled in barbed wire.
FBI spokesman Frank Bochte said yesterday the forensic team led by Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Edmund Donoghue will use DNA from family members for comparison.
After identity has been determined, investigators may look for additional clues about how Till died. No autopsy was ever performed on Till, agents recently discovered, adding to the mystery surrounding the case.
The success of the forensic investigation may turn on how much bone and tissue is left after 50 years in the grave. That could depend on everything from the depth of the grave to whether flowers had been placed inside the coffin at the time of burial, according to Dr. Cyril Wecht, a Pennsylvania medical examiner who has testified in other high-profile cases.
Bochte, Donoghue and other authorities declined to say what evidence they would seek in their examination of Till's remains.
The Chicago Tribune is Tribune Publishing newspaper.