(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.)
Lajuanda Williams had just arrived in Winona when she saw a police car pull in behind her. “I think he noticed me because I was driving slowly,” she says. “I was unsure of my location and I didn’t want to stop and ask directions.”
Lajuanda had driven from Jackson to Winona on the morning of July 8th to observe the trial of Curtis Flowers. A second year law student at Mississippi College in Jackson, she is spending the summer as an intern with the Office for Capital Defense.
“The police car had been following me for a mile, and I was turning off of Highway 82 onto Highway 51 when he put on his blinkers,” Lajuanda says. She wasn’t speeding, weaving or committing any traffic violations. “That’s when I became a little nervous, there was no reason for the stop.”
“When I rolled down the window he told me to place both hands on the steering wheel and look straight ahead. The only thing I know about the officer was that his car said ‘Montgomery County’ and he had very hairy arms.”
“He asked me where I was going and I said, ‘Have I broken any laws?’ He said, ‘That’s not the question I asked you.’”
“There should be some reason why you pulled me over,” the law student replied softly.
“I’m going to ask you again,” the officer said, “where are you going?”
“I said I was going to the courthouse and he said ‘what’s your business in Winona?’ I said ‘It’s not any of your business why I am here in Winona’.”
“If that’s where you’re going, you need to drive straight to the courthouse and stay out of trouble,” the officer replied stiffly. He followed Lajuanda for about 500 feet then veered onto a side street.
“At first I just felt angry, as if my rights had been infringed upon,” Lajuanda says. “Physically, I am African American. Secondly, my tag says Mississippi College School of Law, and I think that in some way contributed to my getting pulled over.”
“What really got to me was that statement: ‘you need to stay out of trouble’; where did that come from?”
I asked Lajuanda why she thought a police officer would make such a bizarre traffic stop. “I think it came from the trial,” she said thoughtfully, “and the injustice that has been permeating this town for years. You can cut the tension in Winona with a knife.”
The next day, Allison Steiner, one of Curtis Flowers’ attorneys, brought the incident to the attention of the Judge Joey Loper. District Attorney Doug Evans was indignant. “I object to these bogus accusations,” he shouted.
“I submit that Mr. Evans doesn’t know if the accusations are bogus or not,” attorney Ray Carter fired back.
“They’re bogus until there is some evidence,” Evans said.
Allison Steiner asked permission to put Ms. Williams on the witness stand.
“Your honor,” Assistant DA Clyde Hill interjected, “this has nothing to do with this trial.”
“We’re entering the theater of the absurd here,” Judge Loper interjected. “I’m going to continue with voir dire.”
Lajuanda Williams sat impassively on the front of the courthouse, but she was fuming.
“For them to say my claim is bogus without even hearing from me makes me think the judge and the DA are really one person,” she told me later. “The prosecution was laughing.”
“Why do you think this is important?” I asked.
“I could not sleep last night,” she explained slowly. “I kept thinking about my daughter, she’s three years old and I kept thinking I had to do something so that she doesn’t have to go through what I just went through.”