(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.)
Curtis Flowers is almost certainly innocent and will almost certainly be sentenced to death.
The resentful glares are growing more intense in the Winona courtroom as people figure out who we are and what we represent. There is a strong sense that this case is a local matter and should be dealt with locally.
If you have lived in a small town you understand what is happening. Any person, black or white, who holds out for acquittal in this case will never be forgiven and will never be welcome in the community. It was true in Tulia, Texas; it was true in Jena, Louisiana; it is true in Winona, Mississippi.
In the courtroom, things are not going well. Testimony yesterday centered on the crime scene. The testimony of Sam Jones, the black octogenarian who stumbled on the bodies of four innocent murder victims on the morning of July 16, 1996 was read to the jury. Police Chief Johnny Hargrove, the second person on the scene, testified, as did a representative of the emergency medical team that arrived shortly thereafter.
The final three-and-a-half hours of court time was devoted to Melissa Schoene (pronounced Shay-knee), the forensic scientist who examined the crime scene. The evidentiary significance of Ms. Schoene’s testimony could have been elicited in ten minutes of examination and cross. She arrived in Winona shortly after 1:00 pm.
The body of Bobo Stewart had been removed by EMT personnel because he was still clinging to life.
The bodies of Robert Golden and Carmen Rigby lay in front of the main counter.
Bertha Tardy lay face down in an aisle at the back of the store.
She photographed the pool of blood that had formed near Bobo Stewart’s head because his heart and lungs were still functional. She took a picture of a partial footprint in the blood.
She photographed a number of shell casings and cartridge fragments on the floor.
She determined that the safe in Bertha Tardy’s office was closed but unlocked. There was no sign that the contents had been disturbed. The same was true of the cash register at the front desk.
The rear exit had been barred from the inside, suggesting that the killer left the building by the front door.
She dusted a number of likely spots in Ms. Tardy’s office and around the cash register for finger prints. None were found.
She examined the glove compartment of a car at the police station for signs of forced entry (she found none) and finger prints (none were found).
The state is hoping the scientific rigor of Ms. Shoene’s investigation will be imputed to the police investigation as well. Defense counsel will point out that Schoene’s meticulous record-keeping and attention to detail contrasts sharptly with the sloppy, uncoordinated investigation carried out by police officers and investigators from the DA’s office.
None of this forensic evidence pointed to Curtis Flowers or any other suspect. But Ms. Schoene took dozens and dozens of deeply disturbing pictures and the state wanted the jury to see every one of them. The most distressing photographs were blown up and displayed on an easel. Smaller prints were handed to the jury and were passed around in the jury box for at least an hour.
The victims hadn’t just been robbed of life; they had been deprived of every last vestige of dignity. This is now the sixth time that the pictures of grown women, spread-eagled, face-down on the floor, have been shown to witnesses.
The prosecution wants jurors to experience the full horror of that fateful morning. You can’t view the photographs without crying out for justice and retribution. And there sits Curtis Flowers, the only possible object of the jury’s rage.
Below, I am pasting a piece I wrote several weeks ago. The state’s case against Curtis Flowers has always centered on the bloody footprint Ms. Schoene memorialized and the Grant Hill Fila funning shoe that made that print. The killer, or killers, could not have made that print. To understand why, read on.
The Bloody Footprint
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.
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. Will juror’s hear this argument? We’ll know shortly.