Friends of Justice brings it all back home

Robert E. Lee iconography in Jackson MS

By Alan Bean

This is Day 6 of our Friends of Justice Reunion Tour.  We started off in Houston, Texas at a vigil for Ramsey Muniz.  Nancy Bean opened and closed the event with prayer while I explained how, back in 1994, Ramsey Muniz was framed by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Then it was on to Church Point, Louisiana, where we visited with Ann and James Colomb, their children and grandchildren.  Six years ago, Nancy and I were in Lafayette when Ann and three of her sons were released from prison.  At their trial, thirty-one convicted drug dealers testified that they had sold millions of dollars to the Colomb family.  I had been arguing that this testimony was the product of perjury parties behind bars produced and directed by Brett Grayson, the ethically challenged Assistant US Attorney.  Three months after the Colombs were convicted, the truth finally emerged in all its sleazy glory and federal judge Tucker Melancon ordered that Ann and her sons be released immediately and that a full-scale investigation of the federal prison system be launched.  It was the Department of Justice that should have been investigated, but that would have landed a bit too close to home.

The next day we drove to Jackson, MS where we visited with attorneys associated with Curtis Flowers, the native of Winona, MS who has been tried six (6) times on the same murder charges.  The Office for Capital Defense is now located in the Robert E. Lee building in Jackson, an elegant art nouveau building constructed in the 1920s as an homage to the iconic Confederate general.

Then it was on to Winona, where we were treated to the hospitality (and terrific cooking) of Lola Flowers.  In the morning, we drove to Parchman prison in the Mississippi Delta where I spent two hours in conversation with Curtis.  As usual, Curtis was handcuffed and chained to his chair.  As usual, we spoke via telephone through half an inch of plexiglass.  As usual, the visitor side of the glass was air conditioned while the prisoner side was not.  At least, for the moment, it is unseasonably cool in the Delta.

Curtis Flowers

I don’t know how Curtis Flowers keeps his chin and his spirits up the way he does.  Like any death row prisoner, he has his dark periods when the walls close in and hope all but disappears.  But his faith is strong and his belief in his ultimate exoneration never wavers.

The last stage of our trip took us to Cleveland, Mississippi where, for the past three years, Friends of Justice has been working with Dr. Paul Ortiz and the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program.  This afternoon I spent two hours talking about Tulia, the Jena 6, the Colomb case and, of course, Curtis Flowers.  I also talked about the importance of grasping the sociology, the economics and the spirituality lying at the roots of injustice.  Whenever the justice system goes off the rails the explanation inevitably goes far beyond sloppy forensics, unreliable witnesses and prosecutorial ethics.  Wrongful conviction is rooted in racial history, economic issues and shifting political winds.

This afternoon I explained how and why things go wrong in places like Tulia, Texas, Church Point and Jena, Louisiana, and Winona, Mississippi.  I concluded by talking about Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights champion and gospel singer who was savagely beaten in Winona’s county jail in the summer of 1963.

Fannie Lou Hamer

I confessed to the students that I have no faith in the liberal myth of inevitable progress.  Black couldn’t vote in Mississippi back in 1963, but evils like mass incarceration and mass deportation didn’t blossom until the late 20th century.  Young people face different challenges than people like Fannie Lou Hamer and the veterans of the civil rights movement who will speak to us this evening at Delta State University, but if they want to make a difference they must summon the same courage and spiritual conviction that allowed Hamer to change the world.