Curtis Flowers: the whole world is watching!

Curtis at trialEight years have passed since Curtis Flowers was sentenced to die by lethal injection.  The eighth anniversary is June 20th.  The legal fight is rapidly expanding.  I am told that over $1 million has been spent on Curtis Flowers’ defense.

But the supreme courts of both Mississippi and the United States have both moved so far to the right in recent years that, even with a case this shaky, there are no guarantees.

Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy!

The good tidings began the morning I received a phone call from Madeleine Baran with American Public Media.  Madeleine narrated a Peabody-winning podcast called In the Dark a couple of years ago, and now they wanted to do the Curtis Flowers case.  Season One had a huge following, nine million hits in fact, so, when listeners were asked to suggest an unsolved case for Season Two, a thousand nominations poured in.

After plowing through the whole stack of options (these people are unbelievably patient) the team settled on the case of Curtis Flowers.  When they Googled the case they got a few old news stories and dozens of blog posts from yours truly (carefully cataloged here).

Madeleine told me that she and Samara Freemark wanted to come to Texas to talk to me and, a few weeks later, we sat down in the Bean dining room for a couple of days and hashed through all the details.

There really wasn’t much I could tell them; they had read and digested everything I had written on the subject.  This pleased me greatly because, although my tendentious posts are far too detailed for the average reader, they provide precisely the information a podcast like In the Dark is looking for.

Madeleine, Samara and several other members of their crew spent a full year on the ground in Mississippi.  They interviewed a lot of people I haven’t been able to talk to.  I had neither the time, the resources, nor the patience.  It often took several overtures over a period of months before some people would open up.  The fear surrounding this case is difficult to comprehend if you don’t understand small town Mississippi.

Finally, a little over a year since my first contact with Madeleine, the first two episodes of In the Dark, Season 2 dropped.  Instead of trying to tell the entire story in a single post (a bad idea, as I have learned from experience), they broke the Flowers saga down into discrete chunks: the route, the gun, the confessions, the DA, etc.  The story is told as a decades-long fight between the prisoner who insists he’s innocent and the DA who wants him dead.  Each episode is a full hour long, the production values are state of the art, and it’s a joy to listen to.

The story follows many of the themes suggested by my blogging, but its deeper and more intimate.  But, just as I suspected, many of the eye witnesses the state has relied on through six trials have admitted that they didn’t remember anything from that fateful day.

One man said that his faulty memory wasn’t a problem because the investigators wrote his statement out for him and he just had to sign it.

The big jaw-dropper thus far (we’re at episode eight out of eleven) comes from Odell (Cookie) Hallmon, the man who has testified in four separate trials that Curtis confessed to the crime while the two men were locked up together in Greenwood.

If you have been following this blog, you know that Cookie Hallmon got out of prison a couple of years ago, started beefing with his peeps, and eventually shot three of them dead, his girlfriend and her mother included.  A fourth victim will live out his days in a wheelchair.

So now Cookie Hallmon is locked up in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison, just like Curtis Flowers.  Only Cookie is a lifer while Curtis has a scheduled rendezvous with the needle.

Cookie Hallmon is a psychopath, in the clinical sense of the term.  He is grandiose, narcissistic, heedless of consequences, and utterly lacking in remorse or empathy.  That’s why, months after his ugly deed, he friended the survivors of his rampage on Facebook.

Cookie wasn’t trying to be cruel, these were the only people he knew.

When Samara Freemark learned that Odell was on Facebook, she friended him and invited him to reach out to her.  Before long, Cookie called on a contraband phone asking for $500 for each piece of information he provided.

Samara explained that she can’t pay for information.  Cookie went silent.

But soon he was back, apparently eager to talk to someone, anyone, in the outside world.  Samara was smart enough to know that, being a psychopath and all (my diagnosis, not hers), Cookie would want to talk about himself.  And talk.  And talk.  And talk some more.

But when he finally opened up about his trial testimony he didn’t prevaricate.  “As for him tellin’ me he killed some people, hell no, he ain’t never told me that,” Cookie admitted without a flicker of remorse.  “That was a lie. I don’t know nothin’ about this shit. It was all make believe.”

In the Dark is raising some significant eyebrows.  New York Times columnist, David Leonhardt, recently used the Flowers case as exhibit A in a column dedicated to America’s broken criminal justice system.

Then Sarah Larson wrote an adulatory piece for the New Yorker, “Why ‘In the Dark’ May be the best Podcast of the Year.”

“In the Dark” is shocking but not sensationalized; the reporters’ simple quest for answers feels as suspenseful as a thriller. Its combination of narrative excellence, surprising discoveries, and ethical rigor result in what may be the best podcast of the year.

Perhaps more significantly, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, a newspaper that has studiously avoided the Flowers case in the past, is partnering with American Public Media to accompany each episode of In the Dark with a print article.

But that isn’t all.  The Starz channel is producing a six-episode series called Wrong Manand the third and fourth episodes will be devoted to Curtis Flowers.  Episode Three dropped on June 17th and the second Flowers-related episode will air June 24th.

The producer of Wrong Man flew me out to Mississippi eighteen months ago to show the crew around town and introduce them to some key people, but that’s about all I know.  They had a camera rolling the whole time I was there.  They used a lot of that footage on the first Flowers episode which is kind of nice.

The Wrong Man series has been in production for well over a year and I have my fingers crossed.  It will run without commercials, which should keep them from inserting those manipulative, and time-wasting, cliff-hangers to make sure you don’t switch the channel.

Wrong Man brings seasoned investigators, attorneys and homicide detectives to Winona and asks them what they make of the evidence, the investigation and the legal process.  These people are usually pretty conservative; but that’s okay.  The facts in this case are too weak to withstand scrutiny from any outside source.

There are more Flowers-related projects in the works, by the way, but I don’t usually mention these things until they materialize because the media are notoriously fickle.  I was hoping either In the Dark or Wrong Man would air and was thrilled, and surprised, that both projects survived to the end.

The big question, obviously, is whether all of this media attention will do Curtis Flowers any good.  For instance, will the courts give a flip that Cookie Hallmon just confessed to perjury?  I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

Still, almost twenty years of advocacy work have taught me that reversing a case of this magnitude typically requires sustained media focus and topflight legal representation.  Curtis has had excellent lawyers fighting for him for years now but the media has typically quoted the DA’s office and reported the results of each trial and appeals court decision after the fact.

That has changed.

Once national and regional media personalities agree that a serious injustice is in the works, the legal process changes, often dramatically.  I have seen this happen in Tulia, Texas and Jena, Louisiana.  I call it “the embarrassment factor”.  No one wants to be associated with a racist prosecution and the Flowers case may soon be perceived that way.

I can blog till my fingers bleed and it won’t impact the legal system one whit.  But, when enough prominent voices are singing the same tune, good things, even miraculous things, can happen.   May it be so for the long-suffering Curtis Flowers and his family.