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I read that there is a campaign in the United States by Civil Rights/BLM campaigners to arrest/charge Carolyn Bryant Donham, who lied in 1955 and claimed that she had been wolf-whistled at and grabbed on the wrist by Emmett Till, a Black teenager who was subsequently lynched by two men. At their trial, she testified that she had been sexually harassed by Till, and the men were acquitted. Donham admitted to lying in an interview with a journalist.

What I find hard to understand about this campaign is that, even if she did lie, it's hard to see how she can be legally held responsible for two men taking it upon themselves to then murder him in revenge. Can a person be held responsible if their lie leads to a murder? If I falsely claim that person A did something relatively minor and negative to me, and person B then murders person A to avenge me, am I really (legally) responsible for that?

Of course, I'm assuming that she could be theoretically tried for perjury, but I doubt that would carry a huge sentence for a comparatively minor crime committed while young. Or is there a special charge for making false claims which are likely to lead to malevolent acts by others? Presumably, living in a society which was extremely racially-polarised and where lynchings were commonplace, she would have known that if she lied, negative consequences could occur - is that a relevant fact?

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There’s nothing I’ve seen that indicates she said anything that prompted the murder, so no direct legal liability for it.

So, presumably she wouldn’t be charged in connection with Till’s death, but rather with perjury or obstruction during the trial AFTER the murder.

The statute of limitations bars the perjury charge, leaving obstruction of justice. But both face a similar problem, her statements outside of court aren’t evidence. And her statements in court arguably weren’t material.

It’s also disputed that she recanted, a reporter says so, but it’s not on tape and neither his notes nor his testimony would ever make it to a trial.

Her testimony, true or not, appealed to the jury’s racism and was not an actual defense of the killers, she didn’t give an alibi or otherwise give testimony that would effect their innocence or guilt (for instance saying the death was a result of accident). I think an obstruction charge would be impossible to sustain.

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Perjury is a crime in Mississippi: the current penalty would be 10 years in prison. The First Amendment does not preclude a civil action for knowing act that cause harm to another. The statement is defamatory, and in this instance, the defamation cause great harm – death. It is not a total flight of fancy that she could be held liable for her defamatory statements.

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    IANAL, but I thought that a dead person's estate can't sue for defamation on behalf of the decedent. – Matthew Cline Oct 22 '20 at 5:37
  • So the consequences would be civil, rather than criminal (with the exception of committing perjury)? – Statsanalyst Oct 22 '20 at 6:14
  • I'm not endorsing the position, I'm just indicating what direction a legal path lies in. – user6726 Oct 22 '20 at 14:59
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Legally, not at all

The US First Amendment guarantees free speech - such speech does not have to be truthful.

Now, there are limits to free speech including that you cannot incite violence. However, the Supreme Court established that unlawful speech must be "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action" in Brangdenburg v Ohio.

So, I can take to a podium and say "You should kill all {racial/ethnic/religious/socio-economic group of choixe}"; this is perfectly legal. However, if I hand you a loaded gun and say "Kill him"; that's not. The former does not incite imminent lawlessness, the latter does.

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  • This answer is not correct, due to the false testimony aspect aka perjury. – sharur Nov 22 '20 at 7:07

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