Strange Doings in Magnolia Country

IMG_0983(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town.  Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)

In my first post in this series I suggested that Mississippi State Senator Lydia Chassaniol was in trouble for addressing the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that revels in its hatred of blacks, Jews, Latinos and the civil rights movement.

It appears I misspoke.

Apart from the Greenwood Commonwealth, the Mississippi media has chosen to avert its eyes from the senator’s strange social dalliance.  Even when it was disclosed that Lydia Chassaniol is a proud, card-carrying member of the CCC, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger ignored the story.

Last summer, Gabriel Thompson spent a weekend at the CCC conference in Sheffield, Alabama.   Each speaker, Thompson reports, seemed more bigoted and mean-spirited than the last.  There seemed to be a competition to see who could toss the crowd the biggest slab of red meat.  It was quickly apparent that no comment, be it ever so vile, could offend a single member of the audience.

The keynote speaker was Lt. Drew Lackey, the man who booked and fingerprinted Rosa Parks.  According to the prolackey-parks.jpgmotional literature circulated by the Council of Conservative Citizens, the audience would “learn how Rosa Parks was a Communist and how the movement she inspired has torn apart the fabric of our nation.  A limited number of his books will be available to be autographed.”

As Gabriel Thompson listened in rapt unbelief, Lt. Lackey laid out the facts.

“He spent 22 years in law enforcement, retiring as the chief of police for Montgomery in 1970, and recently self-published a book about the period. He tells us a story about the violence that rocked the city.

“In reaction to the boycott, Lackey explains, whites had firebombed four churches and the homes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. While Lackey was investigating one of the incidents, he noticed a car slowly driving by. ‘This is something that for some reason criminals like to do, to revisit the scene of the crime,’ he says. His police instincts were correct: He pulled the car over and won a confession from the men, who led him to a stash of explosives that they were planning to use in the future.’

“”Now, we had an all-white jury on that case,’ he continues. ‘They deliberated for 45 minutes, and they returned a ‘not guilty’ verdict on all counts.’ The people sitting at my table, whose name tags identify them as being from Missouri, start to clap. Others join in, some standing, until the room fills with applause.”

Did you catch that?  Lt. Lackey did his duty as a police officer by arresting suspected bombers.  But when an all-white jury refused to convict the confessed terrorists Lackey joined in the general jubilation.

Okay, that was 1956, so we must make allowances.

But notice, when the speaker celebrates jury nullification his audience breaks into wild applause.  And now it’s 2008.

Question.  As a dues-paying member of the CCC was Lydia Chassaniol in the audience when Lt. Lackey was whipping his audience into a frenzy?  If so, did she hoot and whistle along with everybody else?

Frankly, I have trouble imagining a good Methodist layperson like Lydia Chassaniol participating in a racist bacchanal.

And yet she belongs to the organization.  Every politician in Mississippi remembers how Trent Lott and Bob Barr were forced to disown the nasty-as-they-wanna-be CCC.  But Lydia Chassaniol doesn’t care what happens in Congress–she represents the good people of Winona, Greenwood and Grenada, Mississippi.

Chassaniol may have addressed her racist brothers and sisters as an act of principle.  Or perhaps the speech is best understood as a calculated political ploy.  Either way it raises questions that the Clarion-Ledger refusesto ask.

In fairness, it must be remembered that the Mississippi media gave Lott and Barr a pass until (and some would say after) the national media uncovered their unsavory associations.  (To the left, Lott appears with officials of the Council of Conservative Citizens in 1997. From left, William D. Lord, state coordinator; Mr. Lott; Tom Dover, president, and Gordon L. Baum, executive officer.)

This reluctance to point the finger is understandable in a state where civil rights resentment still runs high.  A publication struggling for survival can’t afford to antagonize a large percentage of its readership.

On July 28th, James Bibbs, a retired Winona school teacher goes on trial in Yazoo City, Mississippi.  Lydia Chassaniol and James Bibbs both grew up in Winona and taught in her public schools–that’s where the similarity ends.

In a wild scene at the conclusion of a contentious trial, Judge Joseph Loper accused Mr. Bibbs of intentionally lying during voir dire so he could hang the jury.

The evidence?  Bibbs allegedly told fellow jurors that, on the morning in question he had been visiting with friends at a lawnmower repair business just behind the furniture store where propietor Bertha Tardy and three employees were senselessly slaughtered.  During trial, a police officer testified that he and his fellow officers canvassed the neighborhood.  According to some jurors, Bibbs said he didn’t see any police canvassing that day.

According to Judge Loper, this constitutes perjury because, during voir dire, Bibbs said he knew nothing about the Flowers case apart from what he read in the newspaper.

True, Bibbs was within a block of the murder scene, but he didn’t see or hear anything bearing on the case.

Not surprisingly, Rob McDuff, Bibbs’ attorney, filed a motion to quash the state’s indictment.  In his brief, McDuff argued that Judge Loper, having already concluded that Bibbs intentionally lied his way onto the jury, could not be objective.

Loper, realizing he had no defense against this argument, stepped aside.

Next, McDuff questioned the motivation and judgment of District Attorney Doug Evans.  Even if Judge Loper had already pronounced Bibbs guilty, Evans should have turned the case over to the state Attorney General’s office.  Having been involved in the voir dire process, Evans was a potential witness in the Bibbs trial.

P6264445“Moreover,” McDuff argued, “by seeking the indictment itself rather than allowing another office to conduct an objective evaluation, the District Attorney’s office has raised the inevitable question of whether it sought the indictment because of improper motives rather than because of the evidence.  As explained in this brief, there is no evidence to support the charges in this indictment, which suggests that the indictment could not have been based upon an objective evaluation.”

So, why were the changes filed?

McDuff (pictured to the left) has a theory.  “The history of (the Curtis Flowers) case is characterized by a litany of prosecutorial misconduct.  The first three trials resulted in convictions but each was reversed for misconduct–the first two relating to improprieties during the presentation of evidence and the third relating to a Batson violation [an illegal attempt to keep blacks off the jury].”

Then McDuff cuts to the bone.  “If the District Attorney’s office was willing to engage in repeated misconduct in order to obtain a conviction and death sentence against Mr. Flowers, there is a significant possibility that, in its frustration over failing to secure a valid conviction after five trials, it may have indicted Mr. Bibbs in retaliation for being the lone vote for acquittal in the last trial.  This is particularly so in light of the weakness of the charges.”

Or might it be that Doug Evans (and Judge Loper) are taking the long view in this matter?

McDuff references United States v. Thomas which acknowledges that “The group of jurors favoring conviction may well come to view the ‘holdout’ or ‘holdouts’ not only as unreasonable, but as unwilling to follow the court’s instructions on the law”.

This, McDuff suggests, is precisely what is happening in Winona.  White residents can’t understand why black folks don’t see just how strong the state’s case against Curtis Flowers is.  White residents have been discussing the matter with one another since 1996 and there is no doubt in their minds that Curtis is the one that done it.  The state’s case is so strong, in fact, that black jurors are just like the folks who refused to convict the self-confessed bombers in Montgomery in 1957.  Montgomery jurors annulled a law they didn’t like and now it’s the black folks’ turn.

That’s one explanation for the racial divide in Winona, Mississippi?  Might there be another?

What if Winona native Lydia Chassaniol represents her community in the Senate and the court of public opinion.  Chassaniol can’t understand what’s so very wrong with the Council of Conservative Citizens.  How many Winona citizens share this sentiment?  Are we talking about a community longing for the good old pre-civil rights days with its segregated schools, drinking fountains and business establishments.

Perhaps that a bit too crude?   We may be dealing with a continuum stetching from folks on the left who merely resent the racist hick stereotype and stretching all the way over to the folks on the right who long for a return to their Confederate Zion.

Might there even be a half dozen white Winona liberals who rejoice in the demise of Jim Crow?

Perhaps But my gut tells me that Lydia Chassaniol is vintage Winona.

That’s not all bad.  Chassaniol is hard-working, intelligent, earnest, and well-intentioned.

She is also (and I really hate to put it so bluntly) an unrepentant racist.  How else do you explain the CCC membership.

If somebody out there can set me straight here I would be sincerely appreciative.  I mean that.  I have a daughter named Lydia.  When I see Chassaniol’s picture I know I would enjoy her company.

And yet . . .

Enough of my liberal white-bashing.  What are we to make of the few members of Winona’s black community who have made it onto a jury?

In trial number 3, Doug Evans had fifteen peremptory challenges and used them all on African Americans.  That’s just one reason the Mississippi Supreme Court tossed out the conviction.

In trial number four, five black Winona residents made it onto the jury and all five voted “not guilty”.

In trial five there were three black jurors and two voted with the white majority.

The contradiction is more apparent than real.  Experts on jury behavior talk about the “one-third rule”.  In a factually ambiguous case featuring a black defendant and a white victim, if minority jurors  comprise less than one-third of the jury they tend to vote with the majority.  When you have four or more minority jurors the chances of a minority-majority divergence rise substantially.

“If this charge is allowed to stand,” Rob McDuff argues in his brief, “it will mean that any juror who disagrees with the overwhelming majority of the others can potentially be prosecuted for having a pre-conceived opinion, particularly in a controversial high-profile trial . . . The fact that this indictment was obtained by the District Attorney’s office that prosecuted Mr. Flowers could have a chilling effect on jurors in the present case.  Mr. Bibbs was the lone holdout juror in the Flowers murder case, which was tried by that office, and he subsequently was indicted by the same office.  This could send a message to jurors in the present case that if they do not vote with the District Attorney’s office, they too could find themselves indicted by that office.”

In the face of these arguments, Doug Evans recused himself from the Bibbs case.   For similar reasons, the July 28th trial will be held in Yazoo City instead of Winona.  Now that the Bibbs case has been dumped in the lap of a less-than-enthusiastic Attorney General’s office it’s hard to know what to expect.  The Bibbs trial is certain to be a learning experience.  I’ll keep you posted.

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the tragedy that has divided a Mississippi town.  Parts 1 through 3 can be found here, here and here.

2 thoughts on “Strange Doings in Magnolia Country

  1. I expect this is an effort to scare jurors and scare potential black jurors off the jury. If perjury in voir dire were prosecuted, what would have happened to Tulia jurors, especially the one who announced in Sunday School that they were all guilty, then went on to become a jury foreman?

Comments are closed.