Narrative strategy 101: a word to our readers

Did you read my recent post about Fannie Lou Hamer’s religion, or the one I sent out yesterday about the vicious beating Hamer and her friends sustained in 1963?  If you didn’t read either piece it may have been because you didn’t see the point.  “Who the hell is Fannie Lou Hamer,” you may have asked, “and why should I care?”

As most of you have gathered by now, all the posts about the history of the Mississippi civil rights movement have some connection with the case of Curtis Flowers, the thirty-nine year-old Winona native who will soon stand trial for an unprecedented sixth time on the same murder charges.  Perhaps you are waiting patiently for me to connect the dots between 1963 and 2009 and are beginning to wonder where I’m going with all of this.  If so, this blog is for you.

My inquiry into the Flowers case began with a couple of visits to Winona.  I met with the Flowers’ family, talked to his extended social network and visited with his attorneys in Jackson.  They handed me a CD containing the transcripts of the five trials that have taken place thus far.  It was while plowing through thousands of pages of trial testimony that the historical questions began to emerge.

The case against Flowers was exceedingly weak.  I saw that immediately.  The physical evidence was largely junk science.  The eye witnesses either lacked credibility or failed to support the state’s theory of the case.  Furthermore, the crime itself had all the earmarks of an organized hit.  There are some people in our sorry world who would kill four people in cold blood over $82, but Curtis Flowers didn’t fit the profile. 

Nonetheless, Doug Evans, the man who has prosecuted Curtis Flowers five times, thought he had a solid case.  He didn’t just think it; he knew it.  Otherwise, he would have deep-sixed this case years ago (can you imagine how weary of the details he must be by now).  But four innocent people were killed in Winona on July 16, 1996, Mr. Evans thinks he knows who did it, and it is his job to make that man pay.

In the mind of DA Doug Evans it’s just that simple.

So why, I asked myself, did a case this weak seem strong to DA Evans?

While I was pondering that question I stumbled upon State Senator Lydia Chassaniol, the former Winona school teacher who raised eyebrows by addressing the annual meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens last summer.  Her picture looked so friendly; she looked like everybody’s auntie.  I imagined I would enjoy her company if we were ever introduced.  Yet Miss Lyida was a proud, card-carrying member of an organization proudly rooted in the old citizens’ council movement. 

History has always been important to the Friends of Justice.  I didn’t understand what was going on around me in Tulia until I researched the history of the town.  But with the Flowers case history is everything.

I knew I would find the mindset driving this case buried in the ashes of history.  I didn’t know what I would find.  I’m still not sure how all of this ties together, but I’m certain it does.  So I started reading through the files of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, I leafed through several books and dozens of articles.  The piece I wrote on Hamer’s beating in Winona, for instance, was culled from twenty different sources.  At Friends of Justice we do our homework.

Lawyers rarely ask why a prosecutor is bound and determined to prosecute a weak case.  Legally, it doesn’t much matter.  Prosecutors are only accountable to the public at election time and are free to prosecute any case they wish for any reason.  Similarly, attorneys don’t generally delve into the historical nexus of a case.  In the courtroom, history is irrelevant.  The law assumes that prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys are fair-minded, unbiased individuals who have the best interest of the public at heart. 

Therefore, when Friends of Justice says we are fighting for Curtis Flowers we aren’t usurping the role of the attorneys assigned to the case.  Curtis Flowers is being defended by a team of attorneys with the Office of Capital Defense Counsel in Jackson, Mississippi.  Ray Charles Carter, Mr. Flowers’ lead attorney, serves on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.  The man is an excellent attorney who has represented Curtis three times and will soon represent him a fourth time.  Friends of Justice doesn’t do legal work–that’s Mr. Carter’s job.  Everybody clear on that.

Furthermore, Mr. Carter and the Office of Capital Defense Counsel can’t be held responsible for what Friends of Justice says and does.  We honor attorney’s wishes whenever possible, but we our work is entirely autonomous. 

The narratives Friends of Justice creates are intended to impact the courtroom indirectly by bringing scrutiny and historical perspective to a case.  Attorneys rarely appreciate the potential impact of our strategy until they see it in operation.  Once journalists and advocacy groups take an interest in a case the Doug Evans’s of this world are forced to answer the hard questions that can’t be asked inside the courtroom.  The BBC story on the Flowers case is only the beginning.  Thus far, just over 1,550 people have checked out the blog version of the Curtis Flowers story–but interest is growing rapidly.

In the meantime, I will keep bringing you the story, episode-by-episode.  My conclusions will be shaped by facts not ideology.  Next, you will learn what became of Fannie Lou Hamer after she was assaulted by the State of Mississippi in the summer of 1963.  Prepare to be amazed.

2 thoughts on “Narrative strategy 101: a word to our readers

  1. A very good question. Friends of Justice intervenes in factually ambiguous cases where everything depends on who is telling the story. Until we got involved, the only storyteller in the Flowers case was Doug Evans, the prosecutor. The media has paid only scant attention and reporters have never taken a good look at the evidence. Not a single white juror has ever had a problem with the state’s case so it has been assumed that black jurors have been trying to protect one of their own. It is our contention that the weakness of this case can only be understood when this prosecution is placed in historical context. Please stay tuned.

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