Thirty pieces of silver: fear and avarice in a Mississippi town

(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.)

Back in the days of Jim Crow, black people experienced few pleasures and were highly vulnerable to pain.  It wasn’t that hard to bribe people who had nothing or to coerce people who knew they could be beaten or killed with impunity.  A few brave souls bucked the system, but we can’t blame the overwhelming majority who didn’t.

The five (soon to be six) Curtis Flowers murder trials are all about the crude manipulation of ignorant poor folks willing to betray the truth for thirty pieces of silver.

In 1996 Winona, the street value of thirty pieces of silver was $30,000.  That’s how much people on the poor side of Winona were offered for information leading to the conviction of Curtis Flowers.  The man’s name didn’t appear on the posters that were stapled to every street post on the black side of town, but everybody knew who the law was after.

District attorney Doug Evans and Investigator John Johnson didn’t have much to work with at first.

Doyle Simpson had reported a stolen weapon the morning of the murders and police were pretty sure the stolen gun was the murder weapon.

Katherine Snow, one of Doyle’s co-workers, told police she had seen a young stranger, about five-foot-six, leaning up against Doyle’s car when she arrived for work a little after 7:00 am.

Finally, a white man named Porky Collins came forward the day of the crime saying he had seen two black males arguing on the street in front of Tardys the morning of the murders.

For the first three weeks, that’s about all investigators had to go on.  None of their witnesses had breathed a word about Curtis Flowers but Johnson and Evans knew he was guilty.  Roxanne Ballard, a daughter of the slain Bertha Tardy, had discovered a check for $82 made out to Curtis Flowers on her mother’s desk. Tests taken the day of the crime had detected one micron of gunpowder residue on the web of the suspect’s right thumb.  Moreover, the bloody footprint discovered at the crime scene came from a men’s Grant Hill Fila running shoe between sizes 10 and 11.  A shoe box for size 10.5 Grant Hill Filas had been found in the bedroom of Flowers’ girlfriend.

Evans and Johnson knew they had their man, but more evidence was needed before they could take the case to a jury.  If Curtis was the triggerman, somebody must have seen something.

The natural place to start was with Flowers’ neighbors.  Patricia Ann Hallmon says she isn’t sure if she approached the police or if they approached her.  Whichever way it happened, investigators couldn’t have hoped for a better witness.  Hallmon had seen Curtis four times the morning of the murder.  Around 4:30 am, as the 350 pound woman was returning from her morning constitutional, she saw Curtis sitting on his porch smoking a cigarette.  Then, between 6:30 and 7:00 am, she saw him heading over the hill on some unknown errand.   A little over an hour later, Curtis reappeared at his apartment.  Finally, around 8:30 am, he headed off in the direction of town once more.

But there was more.  Hallmon distinctly remembered the shoes Curtis was wearing that morning—a brand new pair of Grant Hill Filas.

Now Evans and Johnson knew ‘twas Curtis what done it.  When Hallmon saw him leave shortly before 7:00 am, they reasoned, he must have been en route to the Angelica garment factory to steal Doyle Simpson’s gun from his car.  That done, Curtis returned home, then, shortly before 9:00 am, he walked to the Tardy Furniture to kill Bertha Tardy, his former employer.  Finding potential witnesses at the scene, Curtis killed them too.

A different take on Patricia Ann Hallmon’s story emerged in the second trial in Gulfport. Shortly after Curtis was convicted in Tupelo, a letter arrived in Lola Flowers’ mailbox.  The scribe was Odell Hallmon, a 300 pound inmate who had encountered Curtis Flowers at Parchman prison.

“I am truly sorry, Miss Flowers,” the letter began.  “I was locked up in the Carroll County Jail when I had Ann [his sister Patricia] to tell the police she felt like Curtis committed those murders.  I was trying to get out of jail.

“I had fines to pay off,” Odell explained, “and I couldn’t get the money up.  So I tried to get that reward they had by using Ann.  Ann done got herself trapped in something.  She don’t know how it seems to be.  She know we planned that up while she was coming to see me in the county jail.

“People done told her if she get on the stand and say she was lying for money, they are going to convict her.  So the only thing I can do is tell the judge I pushed her up to it, which I did.

“Miss Flowers, please forgive me.  I never thought things would get out of hand like this.  Every day I tell Curtis I feel guilty.  My family might turn against me for what I done, but I don’t care.  Ann knows for herself what we was trying to do.  So anything I can do to help her in the matter, I’ll do it.  And in return, after everything is over, I ask your forgiveness.”

Attorney Ray Charles Carter

At trial three in Winona, defense attorney Ray Carter had Odell Hallmon read his touching missive to the jury.  By that time, Odell had reversed himself.  Playing dominoes with the engaging Curtis Flowers gave the hapless inmate the strength to do the right thing.  Back in the free world, Odell had to contend with an enraged sister and mother.  Wasn’t blood supposed to be thicker than water?  How could he sell out his family like that?

After several months of sermons from his sister and mother, Odell Hallmon got on the phone to Doug Evans and told him he was switching sides.  By trial five, Odell was claiming that Curtis Flowers coerced him into writing a letter to his new attorney, Chokwe Lumumba, and that Harvey Freelon, Lumumba’s assistant, helped him draft his letter to Lola Flowers.

Freelon acknowledges that his office received an unsolicited letter from Hallmon, but denies helping him compose the Lola letter.

Who do we believe, Odell 1 or Odell 2?

As his letter suggests, Odell knew his letter to Lola Flowers would place Patricia in legal jeopardy.  As long as her own brother was calling her a liar who would take her testimony seriously?  But if she flip-flopped like her brother she was facing serious prison time.

Odell knew all this but he wrote his letter anyway.  Asked to explain his behavior at trial, he says that Curtis promised to supply him with cigarettes if he implicated his sister.  It would take a lot more than cigarettes to convince a reasonable person to choose a fellow inmate over his own flesh and blood.  Odell turned on his sister because, once he got to know the flesh-and-blood Curtis Flowers, his conscience got the better of him.

None of that mattered much back in 1996.  Evans and Johnson ate up Patricia Hallmon’s story; she was saying exactly what they needed her to say.

Still, a month had passed since the murders and Hallmon was the only eye witness who claimed to have seen Curtis in a compromising position on the fateful morning.  The only solution was to walk the route between Flowers’ home on McNutt Street and the Angelica plant where Doyle Simpson’s gun was stolen and the route between McNutt Street and Tardy Furniture.  Since Curtis could have chosen several different routes to and from both destinations, Johnson had a lot of territory to cover.

Finally, a month after the murders, Doug Evan’s investigator found Edward McChristian, a man living between the Angelica plant and Flowers’ home who thought he remembered seeing Curtis between 7:30 and 8:00 the morning of the murders.

It is hard to know how the question was put to McChristian.  I have spoken to several Winona residents who received a call from Investigator Johnson.  They were repeatedly reminded that you could buy a good house trailer for $30,000.  They were also informed that obstruction of justice was a crime.  They were specifically asked for information about Curtis Flowers.

“They were carrying people downtown and asking them if they knew anything about Curtis Flowers,” a Winona resident remembers.  “They were saying, ‘You can have this money if you will say that Curtis did it.’”  The reports referenced in the course of five trials suggest that witnesses like Edward McChristian knew exactly what John Johnson wanted to hear.

Doug Evans still needed a witness who could place Curtis Flowers at the Angelica parking lot.  Katherine Snow started getting frequent visits from Johnson.  At trial, she reports being terrified by these encounters.

Gradually, Katherine Snow’s memory shifted in the prosecution’s direction.  In the course of the second trial, John Johnson admitted that when Snow told him that the man she saw was five-six he asked, “didn’t you tell me he was five-ten?”  At this point, Snow’s memory changed.  Yes, maybe he was five-ten.

Through at least three interviews over the course of five weeks, Snow kept telling investigators the man she saw at Doyle’s car was a complete stranger.  Finally, a month and two days after her first encounter with Johnson, Snow told him what he was desperate to hear—the man she saw was Curtis Flowers.

Snow picked Curtis out of a photo lineup but, as she freely admits, she didn’t need a picture.  She had seen Curtis singing with his father Archie’s gospel quartet on many occasions.  In fact, Snow and Curtis once sang in the same worship service.

If Katherine Snow knew Curtis so well, why did she say the man leaning against Doyle’s car was five-foot-six, and why did she take so long to give Johnson the name he was looking for?

Snow has never provided a credible answer to these questions but that doesn’t mean she is lying.  Contrary to popular opinion, memory has little in common with photography.  When we need to remember a scene from the recent past, a series of impressions consolidate into a coherent picture.  Memory studies demonstrate that the final “memory” is a mixture of relatively accurate and highly distorted perceptions.

The consolidation process is highly susceptible to the power of suggestion.  In their groundbreaking The Science of False Memory, C.J. Brainerd and V.F. Reyna caution that police investigators need to recognize the power of suggestion in criminal investigations.  “There is a rich experimental literature dating back three decades and consisting of hundreds of studies,” they write, “that is focused on the tendency of suggestive questioning to foment false recognition and false recall in connection with previously observed events.  That suggestive questioning has such effects is firmly established, with even brief, one-time suggestions being known to produce reliable elevations in false-memory responses.”

The authors are particularly critical of “memory suggestions” that are “accompanied by threats of punishment if interviewees do not accede to the suggestions or by promises of reward if they do.”

This explains why so many defendants who have been cleared by DNA evidence initially signed confessions.  Threats, promises and leading statements such as “did you see Curtis Flowers on the morning of July 16th between the hours of seven and eight o’clock” can easily trigger false memory. The effect is magnified when witnesses are weak, ignorant, poor and afraid.

A month after Katherine Snow “remembered” that Curtis Flowers was the man she saw by Doyle Simpson’s car, James “Bojack” Kennedy told John Johnson that he had seen Curtis Flowers walking toward Angelica’s shortly before 7:00 am the day of the murders.

The eyewitnesses John Johnson collected didn’t know Curtis Flowers well, but in a small town there are no real strangers—everyone in the black community knew what Curtis looked like.

After graduating from high school, Flowers worked for a Winona furniture manufacturing company for seven years until the plant shut down.  Forced to work part-time jobs, Curtis found it increasingly difficult to keep a car on the road.  Winona is a small town and a healthy young man could walk almost anywhere in ten or fifteen minutes.  During his three-day stint at Tardy Furniture, for instance, Curtis walked to work.

Bojack Kennedy and Edward McChristian could easily have seen Curtis walking by their homes at some point in the recent past.  But did they see him on the day of the Tardy murders?

In January of 1997, Curtis Flowers had moved in with his sister in Plano, Texas where he was worked at a Kroger’s grocery store.  One day he received a call from local law enforcement informing him that two officers from Winona were on their way to arrest him. Flowers waited for the police to arrive and surrendered peacefully.

But even with their man in custody, investigators weren’t ready for trial.  At a meeting scheduled with members of the victims’ families shortly after Curtis was arrested, Doug Evans told impatient loved ones that all the evidence in the case was still entirely circumstantial.

One huge hole remained; no one could put Curtis Flowers in the vicinity of the Tardy Furniture Store on the morning of the crime.

Then John Johnson picked up Mary Jeanette Fleming at her job at McDonalds and carried her down to the police station. There she told John Johnson she had dropped her car off at Weeds Automotive (half a block from Tardy’s) and was heading home on foot when she saw Curtis on Campbell Street.  According to Fleming, Curtis smiled, waved and said, “Hey, good looking?”

Weed's Body Shop

The words are vintage Curtis Flowers; but would a man on the verge of bloody murder engage in such casual flirtation?

A psychopath or a hardened street thug might display that kind of cool; but Curtis doesn’t fit either profile.

Trial testimony suggests that Mary Fleming gave her statement after speaking to her niece, Clemmie Fleming.  Nine months after the Tardy murders, Clemmie Fleming told John Johnson that she had seen Curtis Flowers running for his life just up the block from Tardy Furniture.

The problems with Clemmie’s testimony are as numberless as the stars.  Several family members have testified that Clemmie arrived at her mother’s home between nine and ten in the morning and said nothing about having seen Curtis Flowers.  Later that morning, Mary Ella Fleming has testified, Clemmie accompanied several curious family members to the crime scene but said nothing about seeing Curtis Flowers on the run.

Several of Clemmie’s closest friends and family members report that Clemmie has repeatedly decided to recant her testimony only to back down when the next trial roles around.  “She called me sometime last year,” Stacey Wright testified at the second trial, “and told me someone had came to her house—I don’t know if it was the police or the sheriff—to offer her some money.  She testified that she had seen Curtis down at Tardy’s.  She said that they was going to either pay off her furniture note that she had down there at Tardy’s or they was going to give her some money.  Evidently, they didn’t never do it because she called me back later, was crying, very hostile, and saying that she hate she did it because she never see Curtis down there.  She know he couldn’t do anything like that.  Those are her exact words.”

“We was just talking on the phone,” Clemmie’s cousin, Latarsha Blissett told me when I visited with her in Winona, “and I asked her if she saw that man downtown.  She said no.  After every trial she brings this up.  She tells me they are threatening to take her kids if she changes her story.  I don’t bring it up, but she keeps talking about it.  At the courthouse last time she told me, ‘I’m so tired of this stuff.  I just can’t keep missing work like this.”

Initially, Roy Harris, Clemmie’s driver, backed up her account (although he put the Curtis sighting on a different street).  But at the second trial in Gulfport Mississippi, Harris reversed himself on the stand.

Harris testified that he had made two trips on the morning in question, the first unaccompanied, the second with Clemmie.  While driving alone, a short, light skinned black man in a “Bebop” hat ran into the street right in front of his car.  Harris told a shocked Doug Evans that he knew exactly what Curtis Flowers looked like and the man he saw wasn’t Curtis.  He mentioned the incident to Clemmie when he picked her up because he had almost hit the man.

Roy Harris rode to Gulfport on a bus reserved for state’s witnesses; he had to make his way back to Winona on his own dime.

During the second trial, Mr. Harris was asked why he initially corroborated Clemmie’s story.  “Clemmie Fleming done already told me,” Johnson told Harris, “I want you to tell me.”

“And I say, ‘Clemmie Fleming wasn’t with me when I first seen this guy running.’  But he wanted me to say what Clemmie had done said, but I know Clemmie were wrong.  And he kept on, kept on and the girl with me, she tried to get me to go ahead.  I said she wasn’t with me.  And I didn’t want to tell that, you know.  So I finally went on and agreed with him just to get out of the police station where I could go on back to the house.”

How many interviews with the implacable John Johnson followed a similar pattern?

Even with Mary Jeannette and Clemmie Fleming in the bag, the state wasn’t ready to go to trial. One more misshapen piece had to be forced into the puzzle.

According to testimony at the first trial in Tupelo, Curtis Flowers confessed to two inmates at the Leflore County Jail that he had committed the Tardy murders.  Frederick Veal and Maurice Hawkins testified that after witnessing these orgies of self-incrimination they contacted the Sheriff and signed statements written out by John Johnson.

Attorney Chokwe Lumumba

But interviewed by Chokwe Lumumba, the defense attorney who represented Curtis at the second trial, Frederick Veal admitted that he and Hawkins had been scamming the prosecution in hopes of laying their hands on $30,000.

“I wanted to get out of jail, and I didn’t have no money,” Freddie Veal explained at a pre-trial hearing, “so I asked to speak to (Leflore Sheriff) Banks.  So I wanted to know why my bond was ten thousand dollars.  He told me I was a two time convicted felon, and he asked me, ‘Well, you can help yourself out.  Let me put you in the cell with Curtis Flowers and see if you can get any information from him . . . Well, I stayed in there with Curtis for about three days, and an investigator came down, Mr. Johnson, and gave me a statement.”

Asked what the statement said, Veal was blunt: “That he told me he killed them folks in Winona.”

“And had Mr. Flowers actually told you that?” Lumumba asked.

“No, sir,” Veal replied.  “He did not tell me that.”

Asked why he lied, Veal became agitated.  “Well, I was coerced, and they came to me about the money.”

“You said you were coerced,” Lumumba said.  “Who coerced you?”

“Well, all of them,” Veal blurted angrily.  “Johnson, Mr. Evans, all of them.  I tried to back out when we went to Tupelo to go to court.  They said, ‘You can’t back out.’  I said, ‘I don’t want to testify.’  So they say, ‘You ain’t got no choice.’”

This testimony was given in the course of an incredibly adversarial hearing in which Chokwe Lumumba repeatedly accused the prosecution of suborning perjury and Judge Clarence Morgan of pro-prosecution bias.

Veal and Hawkins were not called as state witnesses at subsequent trials.

Is it reasonable that so many witnesses would lie in exchange for thirty pieces of silver?

Frederick Veal certainly did.  Common sense suggests that Clemmie Fleming and Patricia Hallmon were also influenced by the reward money.

Not a single eye witness, with the possible exception of Patricia Ann Hallmon, came forward of their own volition.  Greed figured into the equation but it was never the primary motivator.

Even the egregious Hallmon couldn’t have invented her made to order testimony without the urging of her brother.  Odell Hallmon’s letter to attorney Chokwe Lumumba revealed the deeply ambivalent feelings he felt for Patricia.  “My sister love me like I was her child,” he wrote, “she do for me when others don’t.”  Later in the letter he gave a less complimentary evaluation: “My sister—she is the worst child my mother have.  She just like me, do anything for money.”

But was it just about the money?

Edward McChristian and Bojack Kennedy (the two men who remember seeing Curtis passing by their homes) were likely reporting actual encounters.  But did they see Curtis the morning four innocent people were killed?  When you get $30,000 for saying yes, the memory fills in the details.

Thirty pieces of silver wasn’t enough to bring Mary Jeanette Fleming to John Johnson; but when the investigator showed up at McDonalds with his assortment of carrots and sticks, Mary “remembered” what Johnson wanted her to remember.

It is reasonable to expect a measure of variation in the physical descriptions eyewitnesses provide, especially when they are remembering events that took place nine months ago.  But the degree of divergence between the witnesses in the Flowers case couldn’t be more extreme.

Bojack Kenney says Curtis was wearing a black sweater and white pants.  This is Mississippi in the middle of July on an unusually hot day; nobody was wearing a sweater.

Katherine Snow, the woman who saw someone leaning against Doyle Simpson’s car, has him dressed in a white T-shirt and a pair of shorts.  She initially remembered him wearing a white cap, then remembered that he wasn’t.

Patricia Hallmon says Curtis was wearing a white T-shirt with lettering on it, a pair of black, button-up athletic pants, and Grant Hill Fila running shoes.  No one else has any recollection of footwear, yet another suggestion that Hallmon was desperate to please.

Mary Fleming distinctly remembers that Curtis was wearing a white, button-down dress shirt and a pair of “dressy looking” brown pants and a gray jacket with purple shoulders.

No one wears a jacket in mid-summer Mississippi when the temperature rarely dips below 80 degrees and the humidity is unbearable.  Doyle Simpson testified that, about the same time Mary Fleming was flirting with Curtis Flowers, he was rolling down his windows to let his car cool off.

Mary Fleming’s Curtis is dressed for church and is in a chipper mood—yet another suggestion that she refigured an actual memory to John Johnson’s specifications.

Clemmie Fleming, the woman who says she saw Curtis fleeing for his life a block from Tardy Furniture, has repeatedly admitted to friends and family members that she is lying on the stand. Even Roy Harris, the man who initially corroborated her story, couldn’t maintain the charade past the initial trial.

So why doesn’t Clemmie come clean?

Simple: she doesn’t want to lose her children and she doesn’t want to go to jail.  “The so-called witnesses are scared,” a Winona resident told me.  “They want to get out, but they’re afraid of doin’ time.”

“That’s right,” a local pastor agreed. “They were looking for weak-minded black folk and they found what they were looking for.”