(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.)
Sheila Byrd of the Associated Press has written the first story on the sixth trial of Curtis Flowers to appear in the national media. (Charlie Smith of the Greenwood Commonwealth has a story on Tuesday’s hearing in Winona that is also worthy of your attention.)
My views on the Flowers case are featured prominently in Byrd’s article, largely because attorneys on both sides have decided to withhold comment. I have posted the text of Byrd’s article as it appears in the Biloxi-Gulfport Sun-Herald.
Flowers’ 6th trial in ’96 murders draws attention
By SHELIA BYRD – Associated Press Writer
JACKSON, Miss. — Alan Bean, a Texas minister who runs an advocacy group focused on due process in criminal cases, has a blog dedicated to Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi man facing his sixth trial for the 1996 shooting deaths of four people.
Bean has traveled to Winona, the shooting scene, seven times over the last several months hoping to dig up details that could help clear Flowers in the killings or at least raise awareness about it.
“My primary goal is to bring attention to cases with a strong potential for wrongful prosecution,” said Bean.
Flowers’ latest trial is scheduled to begin next week in Montgomery County, where the crime occurred on July 16, 1996. He’s believed to be the first American tried six times on the same evidence in a death penalty case in recent history.
Prosecutors said Flowers was a disgruntled former employee with a motive: revenge against storeowner Bertha Tardy, who withheld most of his pay to cover the cost of merchandise he damaged. Court records show nearly $300 was missing from the business in Winona, a rural town in north Mississippi.
All of the victims had been shot in the head.
Flowers was employed at the store dusting and unloading furniture less than a week before he stopped working there, court records show.
The bulk of the evidence against him at his first trial in 1997 were bloody footprints, gunpowder residue found on him and testimony from witnesses who had different descriptions of what Flowers was wearing the day of the murders.
The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed three convictions against Flowers and two trials ended in mistrials.
Justices pointed to prosecutorial misconduct from the beginning, citing a “cumulative pattern of overkill” in Flowers’ first trial in Tardy’s death in 1997. After the third go-round, the state Supreme Court granted Flowers a new trial in 2006, saying prosecutors sought to keep black people off his jury.
His last case in 2008 ended in a mistrial.
That there was more than one high court reversal raises red flags, said Cynthia Orr, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who said she’s studied the case but isn’t involved.
“That’s unusual. It shows me the case is really burdened with a lot of high emotion and high passion. That’s when mistakes are made,” Orr said. “In the vast majority of cases, either the prosecution is abandoned or some deal is made.”
District Attorney Doug Evans said he didn’t want to discuss the case because “anything I say at this point could keep us from getting a jury.”
Ray Charles Carter, Flowers’ defense attorney, also declined to comment.
Evans said the number of trials isn’t unusual, but Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, disagreed.
“From a national perspective, a sixth retrial is extremely unusual if not unheard of,” Burns said.
Killed were Tardy and three employees – bookkeeper Carmen Rigby, 45; delivery worker Robert Golden, 42; and Derrick Stewart, a 16-year-old high school baseball star who worked part-time at the store. Golden was black. The rest of the victims were white.
In previous trials, prosecutors have argued Flowers used a .380-caliber gun stolen from the car of Doyle Simpson, a relative. No gun was ever introduced as evidence.
At least one key witness has died – Charles “Porky” Collins, who had identified Flowers as one of two men arguing outside Tardy Furniture soon after the slayings. However, Collins’ previous testimony will be admissible in next week’s trial.
Evans dismissed talk that he and investigators developed “tunnel vision” and only focused on Flowers.
“We looked at everything,” he said.
But Bean is convinced one person couldn’t have pulled off the killings, and that’s what he’s said on blog as director of Friends of Justice. He formed the organization in the aftermath of a drug investigation in Tulia, Texas, in the 1990s in which charges were eventually dropped against dozens of would-be suspects amid allegations of racism.
Bean said prosecutors had no fingerprint or DNA evidence from Flowers.
“Whoever did this was a deeply troubled person, or just a cold killer,” Bean said. “Most people cannot walk up to an innocent person and shoot them in the back of the head.”
Flowers, who was 26 when he was charged, worked for Tardy for less than a month. The man who once sang in his father’s gospel group had no criminal record before he was charged with the killings, Bean said.
Bean, who’s pored over trial transcripts, said most police interviews were not videotaped.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the case of Curtis Kyles is the only one he knows of that comes close to the number trials held for Flowers. Kyles was tried five times in a New Orleans murder case before prosecutors dropped the charges in 1998.
“It comes to a point when you’re trying somebody for their life that many times, it strains anybody’s psychological makeup,” Dieter said.