The bloody footprint

(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.)

The only piece of physical evidence linking Curtis Flowers to four murders is a bloody footprint discovered at the crime scene.  But was the bloody print left by the murderer?  Evidence suggests otherwise.

When Sam Jones arrived at the Tardy Furniture store on the morning of July 16, 1996, he didn’t see a bloody footprint.

Jones first worked for Tardy Furniture when John Tardy opened the store in the early days of World War II.  Sam was still working for Bertha Tardy on a part-time basis in the summer of 1996, doing minor repairs and teaching new hires like Robert Golden and Bobo Stewart how to load and unload furniture. The two men had been on the job only a day or two when they died at the hands of a ruthless assassin.

Bertha Tardy had called Sam on the evening of July 15th asking if he could train her new hires.  She called to confirm that arrangement at approximately 9:15 that morning.  The murders, therefore, couldn’t have been committed prior to 9:15.

Sam Jones estimates that he arrived at Tardy’s between 9:30 and 9:45 and that he stayed in the building for about ten minutes.

Entering the store, Sam looked first for John Tardy.  The founder of Tardy Furniture loved to sit near the front door so he could visit with the customers and Sam always exchanged a few friendly words with the old man who had given him a steady job back in 1942.

For some reason, John Tardy didn’t come to work on the morning of July 16, 1996. 

Sam Jones was making his way up the center aisle, wondering why the place was so quiet, when he heard the sound of someone struggling for breath.  Following the sound, Sam Jones came upon the tragic sight of Bobo Stewart, lying on his back, eyes wide open.  Testifying years later, Sam Jones began to sob on the witness stand when asked to describe the scene.  Jones left Tardys at between 9:55 and 10:05, racing as fast as his elderly legs would carry him. He headed up the street to the Coast to Coast hardware store.

The boulevard in front of Tardy Furniture

Shortly after 10:00 that morning, Porky Collins saw two men arguing in front of Tardys.   They were standing by a brown car; one man at the hood of the vehicle; the second man was beside the open passenger’s door.

Collins only saw the back of one man’s head, but he caught a split-second glance at the face of the second man.

Long after he gave his initial statement to investigators, Porky Collins was shown a photo spread and asked if any of the faces looked like the man he had seen by the brown car.  On the first page, Porky’s finger lingered over the picture of Doyle Simpson, but it didn’t look quite right.  On the second page, he tentatively selected the picture of Curtis Flowers but would never say more than “it looks like him,” and “it could be him.”

There is only one way to square what Porky Collins saw with Sam Jones’ testimony.  The entire scene Collins’ witnessed had to transpire in a six-to-ten minute time frame while Jones was inside Coast to Coast.

If two men Porky Collins witnessed were unsuspecting customers who wandered into Tardy’s minutes after Sam Jones vacated the building, they would easily have been on top of the murder victims before they saw anything unusual.   Sight lines would have been blocked by furniture.  My hypothetical customers would have been right on top of the crime scene before the bodies of the victims were visible.

In short, the two men Porky Collins witnessed in front of Tardys had to arrive after Sam Jones entered the hardware store shortly after 10:00 and were no long gone when Johnny Hargrove arrived at 10:21.  The two men couldn’t have been the killers, but they could easily be responsible for the bloody foot print.

But the state has presented two pieces of physical evidence.  How do we account for the single particle of gunshot residue discovered on the right hand of Curtis Flowers?

The results of the gunshot residue test conducted on Mr. Flowers suggest that he had recently come into contact with gunshot residue; it doesn’t mean he had discharged a weapon.

When a pistol is discharged, an invisible plume of smoke wafts back toward the shooter which means that seconds after the discharge of the weapon, the shooter’s hand will be bathed in residue.

But gunshot residue (known as GSR by criminologists) is like talcum powder—only infinitely finer.  With the passage of time, particles of residue will fall from the hand.  Three or four hours after the firing of the weapon, only a few particles of residue, if any, will remain.

If hands are washed during the interval between discharge and testing, no evidence will survive; the stuff is that ephemeral.

Unfortunately for prosecutors, GSR is as easy to pick up as it is to slough off.  Because police officers carry weapons and engage in regular target practice, police headquarters are typically awash in GSR.  Handcuffs and weapons carry residue and it can be transferred via handshake.  In fact, GSR can be transferred during the process of testing for GSR.

Prior to testing, Curtis had ridden in a police car and come in contact with furniture frequented by police officers.

Even if you believe Curtis Flowers fired the murder weapon, it is unlikely that , after a four hour interval, any GSR from that incident remained on his hands.  If he washed his hands no GSR would have survived.

The particle discovered on the right hand of Curtis Flowers was less than one micron in diameter—the smallest GSR particle that can exist in nature (most are much larger).  It is unlikely that a suspect would casually pick up 100 particles of GSR in a police office, or even twenty.  But a single particle, especially one this tiny, is far more likely to have been picked up through casual contact than from the discharge of a weapon.

Most police agencies attach no significance to a single particle of GSR.  The FBI first refused to use GSR evidence unless three or more particles were discovered, then, as study after study cast doubt on the usefulness of GSR tests, the bureau decided to discontinue residue tests altogether.

When a prosecutor goes to trial with one micron of GSR he is either desperate or hopelessly behind the curve.

I suspect DA Doug Evans and John Johnson, his investigator, are more desperate than deluded.  Moments after they finished interviewing Curtis Flowers, they turned their attention to Doyle Simpson, the man suspected of owning the murder weapon.

Simpson’s hands weren’t tested.

Why not?

Because, less than four hours after the crime, Evans, Johnson and company had concluded that Curtis Flowers was their prime suspect.  They didn’t want a positive GSR test on Doyle Simpson muddying the prosecutorial waters.

It is likely that half the people in the building when Flowers and Simpson were questioned had at least one particle of residue on their hands—the stuff is that ubiquitous in police stations.

The men in charge of the Tardy murder investigation know next to nothing about Doyle Simpson, the man who’s hands they refused to test. It is to Simpson and the gun he reported missing on the morning of July 16, 1996 that we turn next.

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