(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.)
Criminal cases built on circumstantial evidence and questionable eye-witness testimony encourage what I call the “duck-rabbit syndrome”. You can see a duck, you can see a rabbit; but you can’t see both at the same time. Faced with spotty evidence, the human mind fills in the gaps. Nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum.
The analogy isn’t perfect. You can look at the duck-rabbit and see the duck, then the rabbit, then the duck again. With a circumstantial case like State of Mississippi vs. Curtis Giovanni Flowers, the duck people can’t see the rabbit and vice versa.
Those sitting on right side of the Montgomery County courtroom see a guilty duck; the folks on the left see an innocent rabbit. I write from the rabbit side of the room.
Late Saturday afternoon, in a surreal duck-rabbit confrontation, several Friends of Justice representatives were surrounded by a dozen family members of the four people who were senselessly murdered at Winona’s Tardy Furniture store on July 16, 1996.
The confrontation began with an ostensibly sincere question about the mission of Friends of Justice. The man asking the question, I soon learned, was a son of Carmen Rigby, the Tardy Furniture business manager who died in the most heinous crime in Winona’s history. He wanted to know how we could possibly look at the evidence in this case and think Curtis Flowers was anything but stone-cold guilty.
I was trying to explain my perspective when I was approached, tentatively, by Roxanne Ballard, daughter of the late Bertha Tardy. Roxanne asked why the British Broadcasting Corporation (and other media outlets) only focus on a perceived racial divide in Winona and ignore examples of unity such as a gospel group comprised of black and white residents.
Then she asked how a man who called himself a minister could be motivated by pure hatred.
I believe that was a reference to me. That’s how it looks from the duck side of the courtroom.
Roxanne didn’t wait around for an answer. It was likely just as well; productive communication across the duck-rabbit divide is tough and easily devolves into sloganeering.
“There’s two kinds of people there’s no sense talking to,” one man announced loudly, “a drunk and an idiot.” He glared in my direction before delivering the punchline: “And I don’t think you’ve had a drink.”
Others tried to be more conciliatory, but the duck-rabbit divide remained.
Our conversation partners were particularly adamant that Lujuanda Williams, the young woman who was harassed by a Montgomery County Sheriff’s deputy earlier this week, had invented the episode for polemical purposes.
Judge Joey Loper and DA Doug Evans share this cynical perspective. In a duck-rabbit conflict, not a single point can be conceded.
When I am asked to intervene in a circumstantial case, I try to imagine my way into the prosecutor’s head. I assume the case is valid and work through all the implications. In the Flowers case, whenever I tried to imagine Curtis as the killer I ran into improbabilities at every turn.
But the duck-rabbit divide can’t be bridged that easily. I can never feel the emotion that permeates the prosecution of the case. I can’t be privy to the hundreds of brief conversations that, over time, built a consensus in the investigative community that Curtis Flowers was guilty.
The atmosphere in the courtroom was incredibly tense yesterday. Defense counsel have nothing but contempt for the state’s case; the state believes defense counsel has pushed its advocacy over the line. Judge Loper gave even-handed rulings through most of the day, but his pro-prosecution bias became more pronounced as the day progressed.
Saturday’s testimony moved from highly technical autopsy and ballistics analysis to the rough-and-tumble of eyewitness testimony. Stephen Hayne, the semi-official Mississippi state pathologist, described the brutal forensic facts of the case with the kind of clinical precision that comes with years of courtroom experience. Hayne has performed between 1500 and 1800 autopsies a year (that’s not a typo) and has been soundly criticized for a pro-prosecution bias, questionable procedures and corner-cutting. There is little controversy about the autopsies in these cases, however. All four victims were shot in the back of the head and Hayne agreed that these appear to be execution-style slayings.
Former Montgomery sheriff, Bill Thornburg, testified that he found shell casings and cartridge fragments at Tardy Furniture and, a few days later, removed ballistics evidence from a post at the home of Doyle Simpson’s mother. He also talked about interviewing Doyle Simpson shortly before noon on July 16, 1996. Shortly aftger 11:00 am that morning, Simpson had reported to work associates that a gun had been stolen from the glove compartment of his car. Thornburg learned of the alleged theft while he was investigating the crime scene at Tardys.
Finally, Thornburg testified that he had found an empty shoe box for a size 10.5 pair of Grant Hill Fila running shoes in a chest of drawers in the bedroom of Connie Moore, the woman Curtis Flowers lived with back in 1996.
Under intense cross-examination from defense attorney Alison Steiner, Thornburg admitted that he hadn’t filed a single report on any of this investigative activity, so we must trust his memory.
Ballistics expert David Balash testified that all the shell casings and cartridge fragments found at the scene of the crime were fired from the same .380 automatic. When this ballistic evidence was compared to shell casings dug out of a cedar post at the home of Doyle Simpson’s mother, there appeared to be a match. Balash never testified definitively that ballistics evidence from the two sites came from the same weapon, but they did come from the same make of gun.
Doug Evans asked his questions as if reciting from a well-memorized script. This isn’t surprising, Evans has put on essentially the same case six times now. Witnesses like Stephan Hayne and David Balash also seem to be testifying by rote, the words tumbling out without a pause or sign of reflection. To hear Evans interacting with these men is like watching Dancing with the Stars–each partner has the moves down cold.
Little hangs on the testimony of men like Hayne and Balash. No one denies that four people were brutally murdered at Tardy Furniture and the gruesome details point to no suspect in particular. But as the jury flipped through five-by-seven photos of the autopsy, a sense of outrage was growing. In the absence of a more likely suspect, defendant Flowers will be the natural target for this emotion.
Then the state put Patricia Hallmon (now Patricia Odom-Sullivan) on the stand. The witness testified that she first saw Curtis Flowers at around 4:45 am on the morning of July 16, 1996 as she took her morning walk around the neighborhood.
Flowers, she said, was sitting on his front steps smoking a cigarette. She spoke to him, but he didn’t respond. This silence from the normally friendly Flowers shook Patricia up so badly that she decided to cut short her walk.
It is extremely fortunate for the state prosecutor that Patricial Hallmon also saw Curtis Flowers head out “across the hill” wearing black pants, “windsuit” pants, a white shirt and, most importantly, a pair of Grant Hill Fila shoes at a time consistent with the state’s theory that Curtis stole Doyle Simpson’s gun at the Angelica plant shortly after 7:00 that morning.
Then she saw home returning to his home at about 7:30 am.
DA Doug Evans attached particular importance to the witnesses’ “over the hill” testimony and asked her what lay in that direction. Hallmon-Sullivan knew where the prosecutor was going with the question. Unfortunately, although Flowers’ parents’ home lies “over the hill”, the destination the state believes he was heading (the Angelica garment factory) lies in a precisely the opposite direction. (As I write this, I can see the hill in question out the window.)
Anyone who lives in the neighborhood where Flowers and Hallmon were living knows that, if you wanted to get to the Angelica plant by foot, you would save five minutes by cutting through the cemetary and the Wal-Mart parking lot. This suggests that, even if Ms. Hallmon saw Curtis heading “over the hill” on the day in question, he wasn’t heading to Angelicas.
Patricia Hallmon also reported seeing Flowers head out over the hill once again at about 8:45; just in time to commit the Tardy murders shortly after 9:15 am.
Patricia’s brother, Odell Hallmon, testified in Flowers 2 that he and “Ann” (Patricia) ginned up this story in order to cash in on the $30,000 reward. Hallmon stuck with this story until he was released from Parchman prison and moved in with his mother. After a few weeks of domestic turmoil, Odell told Doug Evans that (a) he had lied on his innocent sister and (b) that Curtis Flowers had admitted to killing the four victims while they were in prison together at Parchman.
Since Odell Hallmon and Curtis Flowers weren’t on the same unit at Parchman, and were separated at all times by a barbed wire fence, this testimony, like sister “Ann’s”, has a made-to-order quality. Investigators were willing to pay good money for testimony consistent with their theory of the crime and street hustlers like the Hallmon’s made the most of the opportunity.
At least, that’s how things look from the rabbit side of the room.
Defense attorney Ray Carter bombarded Ms. Hallmon-Odom-Sullivan with a blizzard of questions and took careful note of the answers. Little attempt was made to impeach the testimony, but state witnesses were informed that they might be re-called when the defense puts on its case.
Ms. Hallmon was outraged to learn her ordeal might extend into next week. The mitigation specialist working with the defense had to inform the judge that the witness refused to give her contact information. Judge Loper called Ms. Patricia back into the courtroom and gently informed her that she had no choice in the matter.
Hallmon insisted that she would not give her contact information to the defense team. DA Doug Evans averred that he didn’t blame his witness one little bit. Judge Loper told Evans his remark was out of line.
On the surface, Mr. Evans is a kindly, avuncular man with a dignified demeanor. Push him just a little bit, however, and fury oozes through the calm veneer.
Two other eyewitnesses took the stand on Saturday. Elaine Ghoulston lived across the street from Curtis Flowers in 1996. She remembers seeing Flowers sitting on his front porch wearing a pair of Grant Hill Fila running shoes at 6:30 one morning a few months before the murders.
Ray Carter walked down the aisle and asked the witness to stop him when he was the same distance from her that Mr. Flowers had been on that morning. She stopped him at about 25 feet. The picture to the left was taken from the middle of the street separating Ghoulston and Flowers, so the actual distance was double the distance depicted–at least 70 feet. There is no way an observer could detect the brand of a man’s running shoes from that distance.
Rabbits like me suspect that Ghoulston learned that her neighbor was looking to get $30,000 for telling investigator John Johnson what he wanted to hear and wanted a piece of the action.
The day’s final witness was Katherine Snow, the woman who says she saw a young man leaning up against Doyle Simpson’s brown car at around 7:15 on July 16, 1996. She admitted that she initially told investigators that the man she saw was a stranger who stood five-foot-six. As anyone who has seen Mr. Flowers enter the courtroom, he is just shy of six feet.
In past trials, Ms. Snow has floundered when asked to explain her initial statement to police–a position she maintained until August 22nd of that year. Her explanation has improved with each successive trial. This time she said she quickly surmised that the Tardy murderer had used Doyle Simpson’s stolen weapon. If she pointed the finger at Curtis Flowers, she said, she was afraid she would arrive home to find her children lying face-down.
“Did Curtis Flowers know where you lived?” Ray Carter asked.
“Did Curtis Flowers know your family?”
Again, the answer was negative.
Carter suggested that Mr. Flowers would have no way of knowing what she said to the police. Besides, the sooner he was arrested the sooner her domestic safety issues would be resolved. “Weren’t you having trouble sleeping knowing the man you saw wasn’t arrested until January?” he asked.
“I didn’t want no part of it,” Ms. Snow replied.
This phrase was probably repeated a half-dozen times during Ms. Snow’s testimony. She adamantly denied testifying in exchange for a cash reward and I believe her. By her own admission, Katherine Snow is a highly nervous and fearful person who avoids trouble whenever possible.
“They knew that I knew something,” she told Mr. Carter, “so when they did the lineup I told them (that she had seen Flowers).”
By August 22nd, Katherine Snow and everyone else in Montgomery County, knew the state was building a case against Curtis Flowers. If she continued to tell them she had seen a stranger leaning against Doyle Simpson’s car they would keep carrying her down to the Police Station. This testimony conflicted with their theory of the case and Snow knew it. There was only one way to get the authorities off her back and she did what she had to do.
Reward money had nothing to do with it. In fact, she would have gladly paid out of her own pocket to extricate herself from the investigation.
It didn’t work. Like the other witnesses, she has been repeating the same lies for fourteen years.
At least, that’s the way it looks from the rabbit side of the room.