Category: Curtis Flowers

Racial bias and the selection of death penalty juries

The New York Times editorial below explores the relationship between race and the selection of death penalty juries. The editorial mentions a 2011 study conducted at Michigan State University that found a significant racial bias in the selection of jurors. In the 166 cases reviewed by researchers, “prosecutors dismissed more than twice as many blacks from the jury (56%) as others (25%).” Moreover, the disparity was even greater when the defendants were black.

The Curtis Flowers case is a prime example of this type of racial bias. Curtis, an innocent man, has been tried six times for the same crime. His first two convictions were overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct. Discrimination in jury selection led the Supreme Court to overturn Flowers’ conviction after his third trial. Trials four and five ended with hung juries. At the end of the sixth trial, Curtis was convicted and sentenced to death. Although Mr. Flowers has spent over 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, we can only hope that the growing awareness of racial bias in jury selection will help bring justice for Curtis and others facing similar situations. MW

Race and Death Penalty Juries

North Carolina courageously passed the Racial Justice Act in 2009, making it the first state in the country to give death row inmates a chance to have their sentences changed to life without parole based on proof that race played a significant role in determining punishment.

A state court is now hearing the first challenge to a death sentence under that law. Marcus Robinson, who has been on death row since 1994, must prove that state prosecutors discriminated against blacks in selecting juries, affecting the outcomes of cases, including his. His lawyers presented a notable study by researchers at Michigan State University showing this kind of bias. (more…)

Fannie Lou, Curtis and Montgomery County Justice

Confederate memorial, Winona, Mississippi

(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

I had always assumed that the confederate memorial in Winona, Mississippi had been destroyed in 1978 along with the courthouse.  It seemed a bit counter-intuitive, but there was no sign of Civil War nostalgia on the grounds of the new courthouse where Curtis Flowers was convicted of murder in the summer of 2010.

Curtis has been tried for the murder of four people in a Winona furniture store in July, 1996.  He has been convicted four times.  Two trials ended in hung juries.  Three convictions were overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court, which is currently reviewing his most recent conviction.

Meanwhile, Curtis sits on Parchman prison’s death row.

Friends of Justice is convinced that Curtis Flowers is innocent, but you would be hard pressed to find a white resident of Winona, Mississippi who agrees with us.  At Flower’s 2010 trial, it became apparent, perhaps for the first time, that District Attorney Doug Evans and his investigator, John Johnson, had decided Curtis Flowers was the killer less than three hours after the murder scene was discovered.  The only evidence connecting Curtis with the crime at that time was a check for three days wages found on the desk of the slain Bertha Tardy.  The check was made out to Curtis Flowers.  Though this hardly constituted evidence of wrongdoing, Evans and Johnson centered their investigation on Flowers from the beginning; no other suspects or alternative theories of the crime were ever considered.

The former site of the Montgomery County Jail in Winona, Mississippi

Melanie Wilmoth and I were in Winona this Monday to visit with Archie and Lola Flowers, Curtis’s parents.  We were driving home from a local restaurant when I asked about the location of the old county jail and courthouse.

In June of 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, Sue Johnson and Lawrence Guyot were savagely beaten by several local police officers and a state trooper at the county jail.  A few days later, they were arraigned at the county courthouse.  Their crime: demanding to be served in the white-only restaurant of Winona’s segregated bus depot two years after the federal government integrated bus depots, train stations and airports across the South.

Archie Flowers didn’t answer my question about the old courthouse, he just guided the car in the direction of downtown Winona.  “The courthouse used to be right here,” Lola told me, pointing to the Montgomery County library.

There it stood, the conferate memorial that graces virtually every courthouse in the old South.  This one had been erected in 1909, just 44 years after they drove old Dixie down.   Southern pride still burned strong.  The monument was dedicated “To the Confederacy President Jefferson Davis and the soldiers who fought for state rights.”

Even in 1909, southerners embraced the historical fiction that the War of Northern Aggression had nothing to do with the South’s “peculiar institution.”

MLK display in the Winona libraryThe next morning, Melanie and I returned to the library.  A Civil Rights display featuring pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. greeted us as we entered the room.  I was impressed.  Mississippi is one of three southern states where citizens can choose to celebrate Martin Luther King Day or Robert E. Lee Day, whichever floats your boat.  A Civil Rights display was above and beyond the call of civic duty.

I moved to the desk and asked if the library had any information about the old courthouse and county jail.  “I’m not sure,” the librarian told me.  “If we have anything it will be in the book we’ve got on Montgomery County history.”

She plucked an imposing tome from the library shelves.  It was one of those local histories that most rural counties produce every half century or so.  This one had been published in 1994, three decades after Fannie Lou Hamer and friends were savagely beaten at the county jail and three years before Curtis Flowers went on trial the first time.

Like most county histories, the book began with a section on local history.  Although there was an extensive section on the Native American people who occupied the county before the arrival of white settlers, there was no discussion of slavery.

The book featured articles on every white family with roots in the county and several hundred pictures, but although Montgomery County is 45% African-American, not a single black face appeared anywhere.  Melanie and I weren’t the first readers to notice this.  One reader had scrawled his disgust on the table of contents page.  “Sorry people,” the message read, “us black folks are not listed in family histories.  Apparently we don’t exist though the copyright is 1994.  Go figure racist white folks.  Go Obama!”

The book’s extensive section on the Civil War merely reproduced documents from the war era with not even a passing reference to slavery.  The war was all about Abraham Lincoln’s desire to “destroy all the institutions of the South and withdraw from her people the constitutional guarantees for the protection to property and the right to enjoy the same.”

A visitor to Montgomery County would have no idea that black people had ever lived there or that slavery and Jim Crow segregation were integral to the county’s legacy.  No wonder the note writer was confused and angry.

But that was 1994 and this is 2012.  I doubt you would have seen a civil rights display in the Winona library back when Curtis Flowers was first arrested in 1997.

At first blush, historical myopia and denial have little relevance to the fairness of the Montgomery County criminal justice system.   Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, June Johnson and the other civil rights leaders arrested at Winona’s bus depot in 1963 weren’t simply denied justice; their captives took sadistic pleasure in their ability to beat and sexually humiliate the men and women in their control.  Thanks to pressure from the Kennedy White House, the officers were tried in federal court, but an all white, all-male jury acquitted them after deliberating for a matter of minutes.  The law of the land did not apply to black people (especially black civil rights activists) in 1963.

How much had changed when Curtis Flowers went to trial for the first time 34 years later?

A lot.  When Doug Evans illegally kept black residents off the jury, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the verdict.  When, at a subsequent trial, five black jurors were selected, all five voted to acquit Mr. Flowers while all seven white voted to acquit.

These facts suggest radical change mixed with a disturbing degree of historical continuity.  Things have changed for the better; but not nearly enough.  That is why the case of Curtis Flowers and hundreds of other Mississippi defendants must be viewed through the lens of the Magnolia State’s troubled racial history.  Did Curtis Flowers get a fair trial in 1997, in 2010, or at any time in between?  You be the judge.

What’s to be done with Rogue Prosecutors?


By Alan Bean 

According to Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast, a bill designed to qualify the absolute immunity currently enjoyed by Texas prosecutors was introduced by Rep. Lon Burnam in the most recent legislative session.  It didn’t make it to the floor.  District attorneys and state legislators have traditionally marched in lock step.  Politicians shore up their tough-on-crime credentials by passing more and more laws and stiff sentences.  Prosecutors use these laws to leverage plea bargains.  It’s a win-win.

Unless you are an innocent defendant.

The Dallas Morning News op-ed referenced below offers some solid suggestions for reining in prosecutorial power and Henson adds some additional suggestions of his own.  But at the root of the problem lies a stubborn fact: we don’t have enough prosecutors in the system to handle the work load.

Consider these quotes from William Stuntz’s The Collapse of American Criminal Justice

The explosive growth of the nation’s prison population after 1970 did not coincide with an explosion in the numbers of police officers, prosecutors, and defense attorneys.  On the contrary: while prison budgets shot up, spending on police, lawyers, and courts rose more slowly, and the number of personnel rose less still.  The number of local officers increased roughly 20 percent in the 1970s and 1980s, the same percentage rise as in the general population; the number of local prosecutors grew by a similar amount.

. . . Spending on lawyers for indigent defendants fell by more than half from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.  While these trends took hold, the number of felony prosecutions rose at least two-and-a-half times . . . The justice system became, more and more, an assembly line in which cases are processed, not adjudicated.

. . .The greater the ratio of cases to personnel, the smaller the opportunity to examine carefully the evidence on which the government’s case rests.  And that opportunity was already small: even before the huge run-up in felony prosecutions, the tendency was for plea bargains to be struck early in the process, before either side had a chance to do much investigating.  That tendency is even stronger in today’s justice system because pleading cases out quickly is a necessity, not a convenience.  The upshot is that noninvestigation is the norm in American criminal litigation, careful gathering of evidence the exception.

As the Curtis Flowers case demonstrates, under-investigation and noninvestigation are the primary reasons for wrongful conviction.  Prosecutors are desperate to settle cases quickly and cheaply.  If we’re serious about curbing prosecutorial misconduct, we need more prosecutors, more police officers, more judges, more courtrooms and more defense attorneys.  I know this is unwelcome news given the prevailing mania for belt-tightening, but it’s true.

‘How to curb rogue prosecutors,’ or, ‘The gathering clouds’

 Grits linked the other day to a Dallas News editorial (behind paywall) published over the weekend (Nov. 12) titled “How to curb rogue prosecutors” which opened:

One thread running through many criminal exoneration cases in Texas involves prosecutors who failed their legal and moral duty to justice and fair play.

Too many of them appear to have been more interested in winning a conviction than airing the whole truth, even at the expense of someone’s liberties.

Lawmakers need to unravel these tangled messes, then find ways to build safeguards against willful or sloppy miscarriage of justice in a district attorney’s office. (more…)

Marlowe’s Mississippi

By Alan Bean

Lara Marlowe generally writes for an Irish audience, but when she turns her attention to the American South it is wise to take notice.  American journalists are generally reluctant to address our nation’s racial history honestly and openly; aggrieved southerners wail and lament when they feel mistreated and misunderstood.  Nowhere is this more true than in Mississippi.  But Marlowe’s carefully crafted piece on the Magnolia state draws on the insights of those who know the region best.

Most of the sobering facts cited below will come as no surprise to readers of this blog.  But how many Americans know that the public schools of Mississippi lost half a million white students when the feds finally got serious about school integration in the South?   A recent article in The Christian Century, notes that “only 2 percent of high school seniors could name the social problem that the Supreme Court addressed in Brown v. Board of Education.” (more…)

It’s still hot as hell on Parchman’s death row

By Alan Bean

The visitors center at Parchman on a rainy day

This post is several years old, but as the day of vindication for Curtis Flowers approaches its important to remember what death row Mississippi style is all about

A few weeks ago, I visited Curtis Flowers in Parchman prison.  I was in the midst of a nine-day civil rights tour, but I had arranged to meet Lola Flowers, Curtis’ mother, on a Tuesday morning.  Rain clouds dominated the sky as I pulled into the parking lot at the visitors’ station but the rain was holding off.  Lola and I entered the facility making sure to carry nothing with us but a driver’s license and our car keys.

The last time I had tried to visit Curtis I was refused entry–someone had forgotten to add my name to his visitation list; this time everything went smoothly.  After going through the standard security screening (just a little bit more intrusive than what you encounter at the airport), we climbed into a mini-van with other visitors and drove deep into the massive expanse of Parchman prison.

Parchman had been created in 1903 Under the leadership of Governor James Vardman, the man they called “the White Chief”.  It was essentially an old-time cotton plantation set on 20,000 acres in the Mississippi Delta. No walls surrounded the plantation because there was literally nowhere to run. Flat Delta cotton fields stretched for miles in every direction. It was Vardman’s intention that Parchman Farm be run “like an efficient slave plantation,” so as to equip young black men with the “proper discipline, strong work habits,and respect for white authority.” (more…)

A place like Mississippi

Magnolia blossom at the Leflore County Courthouse

By Alan Bean

Ever since Friends of Justice was asked to look into the case of Curtis Flowers, we have been intrigued with Mississippi.  The most intense confrontations between civil rights and states rights took place in the Magnolia state.  Most educated Americans are vaguely aware that hundreds of freedom riders were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi in 1961.  The Emmett Till story, for very good reason, has received a lot of attention. The Freedom Summer of 1964, culminating in the murder of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, has entered the American historical lexicon.

But so much has been forgotten.  Who today remembers the voter registration struggles in places like Greenwood, Cleveland and Grenada?  How many are aware of the intimate link between the Emmett Till case and the Montgomery bus boycott?  How many educated Americans are familiar with the heroic work of Sam Block, Diane Nash, Amzie Moore and Aaron Henry (to name just a few)?

Amazing stories have been forgotten because in Mississippi nobody won.  The civil rights people won a few battles, but the states rights people won the war.  Jim Crow may be dead, but civil rights backlash has controlled American politics for decades.

The Friends of Justice civil rights tour devoted nine intense days to these stories.  “To understand the world,” William Faulkner said, “you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”  Over the next few days I will be writing a series of posts dedicated to a parallel proposition: To understand America in 2011 you must first understand the Mississippi Delta in 1963.  Some of these stories will be familiar, some will not.  But this series of posts isn’t driven by an antquarian interest in days long past; in June of 2011, Friends of Justice went to Mississippi in search of America.

Freedom ride anniversary sparks questions about today’s young people

By Alan Bean

Last week, Oprah Winfrey shared her stage with 178 veterans of the 1961 Freedom Rides.   There they stood, black and white, mostly in their 70s, looking proud and maybe just a little embarrassed. 

The fiftieth anniversary of the freedom rides has sparked more retrospection than introspection.  Last summer, I discussed the freedom rides in detail on the eve of the trial of Curtis Flowers.  How much had changed, I asked, since thousands of heroic young people flocked to the South to challenge segregation laws and, more often than not, pay a visit to Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison (where, incidentally, Curtis Flowers now resides).  The post has received 4,000 hits (that’s a lot by the modest standards of this blog), suggesting that interest in the freedom riders remains high.

An article in the Washington Post poses the obvious question: If all these young people were willing to place their lives on the line in 1961, why aren’t today’s young people demonstrating a similar dedication to justice?  Few real answers emerge.  American schools have essentially resegregated and nobody seems to care.  Jackson, Mississippi was the primary destination of the freedom riders.  In 1961, the Post article reports, Jackson was only one-third black, now, largely thanks to white flight, the school system is overwhelmingly black.  (more…)

Why Georgia WON’T execute Troy Davis

By Alan Bean

-Can a system that routinely gets it wrong justifiably execute anyone?-

Predictions are always dangerous, but I am quite confident about this one.  The state of Georgia will NOT execute Troy Davis. 

Why am I so sure about this?  Because public officials are averse to embarrassment.  Politicians will back away from a sinful decision for the same reason they generally adopt a tough-on-crime stance–it’s the easiest way to go.   (more…)

Will Georgia execute Troy Davis?

By Alan Bean

This article by Amnesty International’s Brian Evans provides the most concise status report on the Troy Davis case I have encountered.  According to judge William T. Moore, Mr. Davis failed to prove his innocence.  Meanwhile, the essential features of the state’s case have crumbled to dust.  Will the State of Georgia execute Troy Davis because he can’t prove his innocence to a legal certainty?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to commute his sentence to life without parole so his attorney’s can continue the fight? (more…)

North Carolina poised to repeal Racial Justice Act

By Alan Bean

In the dwindling days of the 2009 legislative session, lawmakers in North Carolina, voting along party lines, passed a Racial Justice Act that allows death row defendants to use statistics to corroborate claims of racial bias in the criminal justice system. Then came the 2010 election. With the Republicans now in control of the state legislature, prosecutors from across the state are calling for the repeal of the Racial Justice Act.

The controversy centers in a study by the Michigan State University Law School finding that qualified black jurors in North Carolina are more than twice as likely to be excluded from juries as qualified white jurors.

Of the 154 inmates currently on death row in North Carolina, 33 were tried by all-white juries and 40 had juries with only one person of color. The state is approximately 70% white and 25% African-American. (more…)