(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.)
by Alan Bean, Friends of Justice
Day Ten of the Curtis Flowers trial concluded with a stunning proclamation: the State of Mississippi (like the rest of America) has no minimum standards for criminal investigations.
That’s right. Law enforcement should adhere to accepted standards (wink, wink), but if they don’t, it’s okay.
Like the Mexican desperados in Blazing Saddles who “didn’t need no steenking badges”, the folks investigating the Tardy murders feel the rules don’t apply to them. In fact, there are no rules.
John Johnson, the lead investigator for District Attorney Doug Evans, got started in law enforcement in 1972. That’s just nine years after Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten half to death in Winona, MS. Just six years after Grenada, MS was engulfed in daily riots over school segregation. And just two years after southern schools finally integrated. In other words, John Johnson was raised by old school standards. The days of lynching, extra-judicial beatings and all-white juries may be over, but the authorities are still free to do their jobs any old way they choose.
Mr. Johnson was virtually inaudible as he answered four hours of questions from lead defense attorney, Ray Carter. (John was back to his old, confident self when Doug Evans was asking the questions.)
The reasoning of the state goes something like this: a proper investigation couldn’t convict Curtis Flowers, so we had to resort to a grossly improper investigation. But we got the right guy so it doesn’t really matter. Only a bleeding heart liberal would opt for an accountable investigation that failed to indict a suspect. Proper standards are bad, you see, because they stand in the way of justice.
If you think that’s a crude overstatement, you weren’t in the courtroom today.
John Johnson freely admitted that he should have kept better records, should have filed reports, should have created clear lines of command, should have administered proper photo arrays and should have tape recorded crucial conversations. But he nailed Curtis Flowers, so, no harm, no foul.
But could John Johnson have achieved the same result had he adhered to minimum investigatory standards (supposing any existed)?
Not a chance! If John Johnson and company hadn’t cooked up a photo array designed to nail Curtis Flowers, Porky Collins wouldn’t have known which picture to select. So they used generic mug shots of inmates who looked pretty much the same for the “filler” pictures and made Flowers’ face considerably bigger than the other faces.
Collins reported seeing two men in front of Tardy Furniture on the day of the murders, but investigators waited five weeks to administer the photo array so everyone in town would know who they were looking for. When Porky expressed interest in the Flowers picture, someone said “Do you know Curtis Flowers?”
Then Porky knew sho’ ’nuff he had the right man.
There is only one way to do a worse photo line-up–don’t take any notes at all.
Generally, that was the approach John Johnson followed throughout a nine-month investigation. If he interviewed a person who couldn’t help him, no record of the interview was kept.
Ray Carter kept repeating the old police mantra: “If there is no report, it didn’t happen.” John Johnson would agree. If he offered prospective witnesses $30,000 in exchange for their testimony (as several witnesses have reported) and they didn’t take the deal, the interview wasn’t documented. On the other hand, on the rare occasion when the prospect took the deal, you eliminate the bribe from the record and record the good stuff.
Today, Kittery Jones, a local pastor, testified that John Johnson offered him $15,000 for his testimony (the carrot) while Doug Evans stood by reminding Jones that obstructing justice was a felony.
Evans was incensed. “I have never been present when you were interviewed, have I,” he roared.
“Yes” Kittery replied softly.
“And that’s as true as everything else you’ve said today,” Evans retorted.
“You were there,” Jones repeated.
“You’ve got a pretty good reason to lie,” Evans said.
Jones wasn’t the least bit intimidated by the prosecutor’s bluster. “I wouldn’t lie on you,” he said; “and I wouldn’t lie for you.”
John Johnson admitted that no one person was in charge of the Tardy murder investigation, but saw that as a sign of cooperation between the DA’s office, the Winona PD, the Sheriff’s Office and the State Troopers. Johnson was clearly uncomfortable when Ray Carter suggested that, after the first month or so, Johnson himself became the chief investigator.
The DA’s investigator freely admitted that, two hours after the bodies were discovered at Tardy Furniture, Curtis Flowers was the prime suspect and all other suspects had been eliminated. Doyle Simpson wasn’t tested for gunshot residue because managers at the Angelica plant told investigators that he was present and accounted for all day. True to form, they had no record of having interviewed any particular manager or employee. Moreover, Doyle Simpson has repeatedly testified that he left the building on three occasions the morning of the Tardy murders (apparently, no one noticed).
Poor record-keeping led inevitably to poor recall. I was appalled at Johnson’s weak grasp of the facts. He couldn’t remember the approximate date of any interviews and seems to have convinced himself that the bodies were discovered by Sam Jones around 10:00 o’clock (Jones says it was closer to 9:30). The reason for this little oversight is obvious. Porky Collins saw two men in front of Tardy’s shortly after 10:00 o’clock. By Jones reckoning, he had run up the street to the Coast-to-Coast hardware store by that time.
Johnson repeatedly denied that he had mentioned reward money to any potential witnesses. But since none of these conversations were recorded, how do we know?
Answer: Because Johnson said it.
I would disagree with defense counsel on one critical point: this investigation did have a leader–Roxanne Ballard.
I’m not being critical of Ms. Ballard. Her mother had just been brutally murdered. She was in deep shock. She found a check in Curtis Flowers’ name on her mother’s desk. She remembered that batteries had been damaged and that Curtis hadn’t returned to work after the fourth of July weekend.
John Johnson reported that Tom Tardy (Bertha’s elderly husband) and Roxanne Ballard suggested that Curtis Flowers was considered a threat.
There is no record of anyone discussing Curtis Flowers (or anything else) with Tom Tardy. No one has ever explained why Mr. Tardy, a fixture at the store, didn’t show up on that fateful morning. So we are left with Miss Roxanne.
Why did John Johnson take his marching orders from a grieving daughter of one of the murder victims?
For one thing, Roxanne was passionate. She didn’t think Curtis might be the perpetrator; she knew he was the killer. Ray Carter asked Johnson what reason Roxanne might have for seeing Curtis as a threat. Were there any fights down at Tardy’s, he asked, any altercations?
No, Johnson admitted, there was no record of that sort of thing.
Had Flowers made any threatening remarks or gestures?
So why was he regarded as a threat?
Because he had just killed four people, that’s why. That’s the way Roxanne was thinking at the time. Fourteen years later, she still thinks that way. Now, she has the dubious fruit of a deeply flawed “investigation” to bolster her belief; then she had a check for eighty-two dollars and fifty-two cents plus nothing.
With a Master’s degree in accounting from Ole Miss and a Bachelors in sociology from Millsaps College, Roxanne Ballard is one of the most highly educated people in Winona. She once worked for a prestigious accounting firm in Memphis. She is sharp, articulate and businesslike. John Johnson is a high school graduate with a few months of police academy training. He is used to taking his marching orders from people like Ms. Ballard.
Roxanne Ballard wasn’t trying to take charge of the investigation; thanks to hapless dupes like John Johnson, that role fell to her by default. No one wanted to cross Roxanne and the rest of the community most deeply affected by the community. People wanted to give these people some justice, and that meant nailing the killer. If Roxanne thought it was Curtis, everyone else was willing to go along.
Unfortunately, eye-witnesses were slow to materialize. John Johnson is rather proud of the fact that he went door-to-door, holding up a picture of Curtis and flashing the handbill about the $30,000 reward. Actually, he doesn’t admit to the picture and the handbill. But plenty of witnesses, some of whom testified at trial, report getting the treatment from Mr. Johnson. Since he didn’t record his conversations, we must choose whom to believe.
Why, you ask, am I being so hard on men like Johnson, Loper and Evans? Because their cruel, self-satisfied incompetence has an innocent man on the brink of death row.
I have nothing personal against these men. When Judge Loper enters the room, I stand. I am critical of our criminal justice system, but there is also much to admire. I appreciate the fact that Mr. Evans’ egregious blunders have been reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court (in Texas, he’d get away with far more). I appreciate the fact that Ray Carter and Doug Evans, two men who clearly dislike one another, are able to labor side-by-side thanks to the rigid rules of the courtroom.
Virtually everything in this case hinges on whether you see John Johnson as a public-spirited truth-seeker or a cynical hack wielding threats and blandishments to shape testimony around a weak case.
Those who support Curtis go with the cynical hack option. Johnson is a creature of Doug Evans. Evans is enabled by a pro-prosecution judge. That’s why I have trouble with these men.
If you don’t buy my analysis, the verdict is very different, of course. If you think Curtis is guilty, there is a natural desire to celebrate the process that brought him to justice.
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible for white folks to believe an investigator could bend the rules to get a conviction. Of course, if there are no rules . . .
The day ended with a lengthy hearing designed to qualify R.L Johnson, the former African America police chief of Jackson, Michigan, Jackson, Mississippi, and Lancing Michigan, as an expert on homicide investigations.
R.L. Johnson is razor blade sharp; the kind of person capable of making subtle distinctions on the fly and reducing a boneheaded question to ashes. He’s the guy who gave Ray Carter the “if there’s no report, it didn’t happen” line.
Not surprisingly, the state interpreted this old maxim as an assault on the integrity of police officers. Since police officers never lie, the reasoning goes, why should they file reports?
Chief Johnson has been in the courtroom over the past few days watching the testimony unfold. Like any sane observer, he is deeply troubled by what he sees. There was clearly no one in change of this investigation; no big-picture person who was aware of all the information. The documentation, to the extent there is any, is obscure.
The Chief has grave concerns about the integrity of the crime scene. Until the forensic people (whose work he admires) showed up, no one was keeping track of who was going in and out of the crime scene, what they were doing, and what their responsibilities were.
He didn’t like “the early focus on one suspect to the exclusion of all else and all others.”
He wondered why no one had asked if it is possible for a single shooter to kill four people execution-style.
Surely, he says, a man who reports his gun stolen moments after a multiple homicide should remain a suspect longer than two hours.
Johnson was highly critical of the photo line-up used on Porky Collins.
Some of these flaws can be corrected, he said; others are way past fixing.
The state isn’t worried; they know Judge Loper will exclude Mr. Johnson when court resumes tomorrow at 9:00 am.
“You cannot empirically testify that this investigation led to the wrong result,” an assistant DA charged.
“I can say that the conclusions of an investigation with reports is likely to be more complete than those lacking reports,” Johnson countered.
And that’s the problem: fourteen years on, Johnson doesn’t believe the investigation in the Tardy murders is complete.
“You have no way to state reliably that this investigation (however flawed) would have worked out better had your ‘aspirational’ standards been followed,” the prosecutor charged.
“You do a disservice to your case and the other side’s case,” Johnson fired back, “by not conducting an investigation properly.”
But is it true? Did the other Mr. Johnson (the one who works for DA Evans) really do a disservice to his side’s case by throwing out the rule book?
When there are no rules, nothing is out of bounds, there are no disqualifications, and you can move the goalposts at will. If you’re in-it-to-win-it, anarchy has its upside.