Category: Curtis Flowers

Standards? We Don’t Need no Steenking Standards! Curtis Flowers trial, Day ten

(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.  (more…)

Coming of Age in 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.)

The current flap about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 shows how complex and mystifying American conservatism can be.  Take John Stossel, for instance.  Color of Change, one of the groups involved in the Jena 6 movement, is trying to force Fox News to fire poor John for suggesting that private businesses should be free to discriminate.  According to Stossel, Southern businesses would have been happy to profit from black business if state law hadn’t mandated the color line.

Mr. Stossel can’t possibly believe his own rhetoric.  State governments enacted and enforced segregation laws because a racist public demanded it.  Businesses with a primarily white clientele turned away black patrons out of a concern for economic survival.  The first white Citizens’ Council was organized in Indianola, Mississippi in the wake of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.  Any move away from strict segregation was punished through economic boycott or, if that didn’t work, physical intimidation.

People living under this state-sponsored, public-sanctioned reign of terror had few good options.   Free-thinkers like Hodding Carter moved as far from orthodox racism as they could manage, but only a handful of white Mississippians endorsed full integration.  In the semi-feudal Mississippi of the 1950s, it was impossible for preachers, newspaper publishers, businessmen and politicians to stand up to this climate of fear and hate.  The only realistic course was to go with the flow.

Things weren’t much better, of course, in the rest of the South.

Confronted by the Solid South, the federal government could trump state law with sweeping civil rights legislation or they could go-along-to-get-along.  For years, presidents staggered back and forth between these two strategies.  Then the assassination of John Kennedy gave Lyndom Johnson a tiny window of opportunity.  Even so, it took all the arm twisting and temper tantrums Johnson could muster to ramrod the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress.

The entire conservative movement sided with the South.  The John Birch Society, Christian Reconstructionists, limited government people, free market fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals, the Daughters of the American Revolution–the entire movement in all its mind-numbing complexity stood foursquare for state’s rights, Jim Crow, segregated schools and the right of public and private institutions to discriminate against people of color.

Have conservatives ever made a clean break with the past?  Not at all.

The civil rights and voting rights acts of 1964 and 1965 were gradually accepted as established law.  Some conservatives adapted to the new world; others stood their ground.  A younger generation of conservatives tried to have it both ways.   They couldn’t ignore the fact that all their ideological mentors backed Jim Crow segregation, so they started re-writing history.

John Stossel’s distinction between racist politicians and a noble business community is but one example.  Rand Paul’s argument that only the government should be barred from discriminatory practices is another variation on the theme.

For ideological conservatives lie Rand Paul and John Stossel the actual past is an embarrassment, so they make up an alternate history.

The current dust-up over social studies textbooks in Texas is another attempt to make history safe for conservative white folks.  Now school children will read the speeches of a successionist Jefferson Davis alongside Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without being told that one view is preferable to the other.  The righteousness of the civil rights movement (once a central tenet of American public orthodoxy) is no longer assumed.

If virtually every American conservative was on the wrong side of history in the 1050s and 60s, history must be altered.

Now there is no righteous civil rights movement confronting the Solid South; just different strokes for different folks.

The folks sponsoring the bogus prosecution of Curtis Flowers are doubtless relieved by these developments.  The formative years of District Attorney Doug Evans and State Senator Lydia Chassaniol (R-Winona) were shaped by a proudly racist orthodoxy (sorry, there’s no polite way of putting this).  The virtue of white supremacy and the vice of “race mixing” passed for common sence when Doug and Lydia entered the first grade and this orthodoxy reigned unchallenged when they graduated from High School in the mid-to-late 60s.

So long as the righteousness of the civil rights movement was trumpeted by network television, unreconstructed white Mississippians were in a difficult position.  The advent of Fox News came as a breath of fresh air.  Fox didn’t denounce the heroes of the civil rights movement, but the subject rarely came up.

It isn’t as if Doug and Lydia have been unaffected by the gut-wrenching change that has gripped Mississippi since they first went to school in the mid-to-late 1950s.

Senator Chassaniol copes by changing the subject.

Listening to Senator David Jordan challenge the bigotry implicit in the voter identification bill, Chassaniol told readers of her Clarion-Ledger blog that she had as much right to complain of bigotry as the next person–people of her gender had once been denied the vote.  “While it is possible to dwell on the inequities of the past,” she said, “it is better to focus on the potential of the future. The problems of the 20th century have been replaced by the real threats to our national security of the 21st.”

Noting the media’s lack of interest in Jesse Jackson’s desire to emasculate Barack Obama, Lydia asked why there had been such a big fuss when Trent Lott whispered to Strom Thurmond that America would be a better country if Thurmond, running 0n the racist Dixiecrat ticket, had been elected president in 1948:

The calm with which this has been reported pales in comparison to the coverage of the innocuous remark made by then Sen. Trent Lott several years ago at the 100th birthday party of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond. Sen. Lott didn’t threaten anyone, but merely wished an elder statesman a happy birthday and said things might not have been so bad if he, Thurmond, had been elected President over half a century ago. While we’ll never know if Sen. Lott was right about Strom Thurmond being elected President, we do know that no one was physically threatened by what he said, and yet, there was a maelstrom of media coverage condemning Lott.

Note the comment, “We’ll never know if Sen. Lott was right about Strom Thurmond being elected President.”  Here’s what Lydia is saying: “An America based on Jim Crow segregation [the heart of Thurmond’s Dixiecrat platform] may or may not have been good for America.”  This suggests that Senator Chassaniol is either a true-blue believer in Jim Crow segregation, or (more likely) she has never allowed the issue to penetrate her conscious thinking in any meaningful way.

This helps explain how she could tell the media, in essence, “I belong to an organization [the Council of Conservative Citizens] that is dedicated to white supremacy, opposed to inter-racial marriage, and wants to bar non-white immigration, but that doesn’t make me a racist.”

A racist, in Lydia’s lexicon, is someone who consciously hates persons on the basis of race.  Since she bears no personal animus to black people, she can’t be a racist.

Lydia Chassaniol was twelve years old when Fannie Lou Hamer was nearly beaten to death in the Montgomery County Jail.  That kind of race-based hatred is hard to find in 21st Century Mississippi.

How does the Senator deal with all of this?  She doesn’t, and she doesn’t have to.  The Mississippi media has learned to ignore embarrassing comments from elected officials that would raise howls of protest in other parts of the Union.

District Attorney Doug Evans doesn’t blog for the Jackson Clarion Ledger (or anyone else), so his views on race and racial justice are more difficult to discern.  Evans may be prosecuting Curtis Flowers for a record-setting sixth time  because he is a tenacious prosecutor who will go to any lengths to bring a guilty man to justice.  Or Evans may be prosecuting this case because he came of age in 1950s Mississippi and made the philosophical adjustments necessary to to the maintenance of security and sanity.

We know that Mr. Evans, like most central Mississippi politicians in the early 1990s, sought the blessing of the Council of Conservative Citizens and spoke at their public events.  There was nothing unusual about this.  Everyone was doing it.  It was the only way to get elected.

I suspect that Doug Evans, like Lydia Chassaniol, rarely dwells on the political upheavals that shaped his childhood and adolescence.  As a prosecutor representing the state of Mississippi, Evans is obligated to pursue justice in an open, fair and even-handed manner.  I suspect he takes this responsibility as seriously as reality permits.

Why then is Evans using bribed witnesses to prosecute a defendant lacking even the shadow of a motive?  How has this prosecutor convinced himself (and dozens of white jurors) that a single gunman could induce four victims to wait passively for their turn to be killed?   Everything we know about this crime suggests the involvement of two gunmen, but Mr. Evans doesn’t have two gunmen to prosecute, so he settles for Curtis Flowers.

I am not trying to demonize Mr. Evans and Ms. Chassaniol (although I could forgive them for thinking otherwise); I am trying to place their passionate pursuit of an innocent man in historical context.

In trial number fourm all five black jurors held out for acquittal.  This was a sure sign that Winona’s black residents weren’t buying the prosecution’s theory of the crime.

It is here that Doug Evans joins hands with Earl Wayne Patridge, the sheriff who ordered the beating of Fannie Lou Hamer.  Neither man is intimidated by black opinion.

Five reasons you should follow the trial of Curtis Flowers

(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.)

On June 7, 2010, Curtis Flowers becomes the first man in American history to go to trial six times on the same captial charges.  But why should anybody care?

If you get your news from conservative blogs and Fox News, the plight of a black murder suspect probably isn’t high on your list of concerns.   Curtis Flowers was found guilty by three separate juries, so he must be guilty, right?

If your taste runs to progressive politics you may have developed a mild interest in racial justice.  But who can keep up with all the horror stories?  After a while, compassion fatigue sets in.  Besides, criminal cases are so damn complicated–who has time to absorb all the details?

Now, DNA cases are another story.  They do the test, the guy is proven innocent, and you see him striding out of the courthouse sandwiched between jubilant attorneys.  DNA don’t lie, so the details don’t matter.  The state messed up–end of story.

This being the case, isn’t it best to give the DNA guys their half hour of fame and let the non-DNA folks fend for themselves?  Makes sense, right?

Actually, it doesn’t.

Only 10% of violent crimes involve the kind of DNA evidence that points unambiguously to guilt of innocence.

Since most jurisdictions don’t save physical evidence, ten years down the road there’s usually nothing to test.

So if you want to know how the system goes off the rails, and why it happens so often, you’ve got to wrestle with the Flowers case.  Here’s five good reasons to break down and pay attention.

1.   Post DNA advocacy must expose the mechanics of wrongful conviction, and it’s all on display in the Flowers case.  On May 23, 2010, the Dallas Morning News reported that “The flood of exonerations in Dallas County, where since 2001 more wrongfully convicted people have been freed through DNA testing than anywhere else in the nation, is slowing to a trickle.  There are only so many cases where genetic evidence is available to test . . . The emphasis of the conviction integrity unit established by District Attorney Craig Watkins in 2007 is shifting toward challenging cases where there is no DNA to test, but where questions remain about an inmate’s guilt or innocence.”

The Curtis Flowers case represents all the legal flaws that led to wrongful convictions in the 254 DNA exonerations America has witnessed since 1989. If you want to see how these cases would have looked in the absence of DNA, the Flowers case is exhibit 1. DNA exoneration cases have made it possible to pinpoint the mechanics of wrongful prosecution: the manipulation of eye witness testimony, the abuse of inmate snitch testimony, the use of junk forensic science, a blatant attempt to maximize the number of white jurors, and prosecutorial tunnel vision. The Flowers case involves flagrant examples of each one of these elements.

2. Like most instances of racial injustice, the Flowers case is 10% evidence, 10% law and 80% sociology.  Three cases have placed tiny Winona, MS on the media radar screen: the 1937 Lynching of two black suspects seized by a mob from the Montgomery County Jail with the cooperation of the Sheriff; the brutal beating of Fannie Lou Hamer and three other civil rights activists by the Sheriff and his deputies in 1963, and the precedent-setting case of Curtis Flowers: 1996-2010. The racial bias in the criminal justice system changed very little in the twenty-six years between 1937 and 1963; how much changed in the thirty-three years between the Hamer travesty in 1963 and 1996?

3. The Flowers case demonstrates the corrosive effect of extremist politics on the judicial system. People like prosecutor Doug Evans and Lydia Chassaniol, (the State Senator sponsoring a bill designed to increase the chances of conviction in the Flowers case) freely associate with leaders of the paleo-conservative Council of Conservative Citizens without apology or regret. Chassaniol is a proud member of the organization. The CCofC is the successor organization to the Jim Crow era Citizen Councils and has never retreated from the old segregationist orthodoxy. Consider Article 2 of their “Statement of Principles”:

“We believe the United States is a European country and that Americans are part of the European people. We believe that the United States derives from and is an integral part of European civilization and the European people and that the American people and government should remain European in their composition and character. We therefore oppose the massive immigration of non-European and non-Western peoples into the United States that threatens to transform our nation into a non-European majority in our lifetime. We believe that illegal immigration must be stopped, if necessary by military force and placing troops on our national borders; that illegal aliens must be returned to their own countries; and that legal immigration must be severely restricted or halted through appropriate changes in our laws and policies. We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called “affirmative action” and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.”

Thus far, the press corps in Mississippi is either unaware of these affiliations or considers them unworthy of mention.

4. The Flowers case proves that a prosecutor always gets another chance, and another, and another.  The 1986 case Batson v. Kentucky established the principle that prosecutors are allowed to eliminate minorities from the jury using “peremptory strikes” so long as they can give a “race neutral” justification for each strike. In the third Flowers trial in 2004, District Attorney Doug Evans used all fifteen of his peremptory challenges to exclude African-Americans from the jury. Three years later, the Mississippi Supreme Court, after concluding that Evans violated the “Batson rule”, used unusually strong language in their concluding remarks:

“Because racially-motivated jury selection is still prevalent twenty years after Batson was handed down and because this case evinces an effort by the State to exclude African-Americans from jury service, we agree that it is “necessary to reconsider Batson’s test and the peremptory challenge system as a whole.” While the Batson test was developed to eradicate racially discriminatory practices in selecting a jury, prosecuting and defending attorneys alike have manipulated Batson to a point that in many instances the voir dire process has devolved into “an exercise in finding race neutral reasons to justify racially motivated strikes.” When Batson was handed down, Justice Marshall predicted that ‘[m]erely allowing defendants the opportunity to challenge the racially discriminatory use of peremptory challenges in individual cases will not end the illegitimate use of the peremptory challenge.’ As this case has shown, Justice Marshall was correct in predicting that this problem would not subside.”

If Doug Evans was guilty of gross racial bias during the voir dire phase of the third Flowers trial, why is he still prosecuting Mr. Flowers?  Why didn’t the Attorney General’s office take over the prosecution of this case the minute prosecutorial bias was confirmed?

5. The Flowers case shows how race trumps objectivity. In 1994, two years before the Tardy murders, Stephen Bright, Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, criticized the unwillingness of jurists to admit the influence of racial bias in death penalty cases. “Some think racial discrimination is inevitable and impossible to prevent; others think the influence of race can be eliminated. The question must be answered, not avoided. If racial discrimination cannot be prevented, the death penalty should not be carried out. If discrimination can be eliminated, then it should be the highest priority of the courts. But to pretend that it does not exist, to deny a remedy, to deny even a hearing, is to give up on achieving the goal of equal justice under law. Tragically, that is what state and federal courts have done.”

In the 4th Flowers trial, all five African American jurors held out for acquittal while all seven jurors voted to convict.  Racial bias has dictated the outcome of all five Flowers trials?  But which side is getting it wrong, and why?

Tunnel Vision

(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.)

Procrustes was an ancient inn keeper who thought his bed was just the right size.  If guests didn’t fit the bed, Procrustes made the necessary adjustments–stretching his visitors on the rack or lopping off their legs—until he had a perfect fit.

Prematurely convinced that they have the right man, criminal justice professionals construct a theory of the crime that fits their guy.  Once this narrative is firmly established, evidence to the contrary is ignored or altered to fit.

The technical name for this phenomenon is tunnel vision.

When evidence of guilt is solid (and it usually is) tunnel vision isn’t a problem.

Defendants who can establish innocence beyond a reasonable doubt are cleared.

It’s the cases in the middle that set the tunnel vision trap.  The state has some evidence that tends to implicate their prime suspect, but contradictions are rife and nothing really hangs together.  (more…)

The bloody footprint

(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.)

The only piece of physical evidence linking Curtis Flowers to four murders is a bloody footprint discovered at the crime scene.  But was the bloody print left by the murderer?  Evidence suggests otherwise.

When Sam Jones arrived at the Tardy Furniture store on the morning of July 16, 1996, he didn’t see a bloody footprint.

Jones first worked for Tardy Furniture when John Tardy opened the store in the early days of World War II.  Sam was still working for Bertha Tardy on a part-time basis in the summer of 1996, doing minor repairs and teaching new hires like Robert Golden and Bobo Stewart how to load and unload furniture. The two men had been on the job only a day or two when they died at the hands of a ruthless assassin.

Bertha Tardy had called Sam on the evening of July 15th asking if he could train her new hires.  She called to confirm that arrangement at approximately 9:15 that morning.  The murders, therefore, couldn’t have been committed prior to 9:15.

Sam Jones estimates that he arrived at Tardy’s between 9:30 and 9:45 and that he stayed in the building for about ten minutes.

Entering the store, Sam looked first for John Tardy.  The founder of Tardy Furniture loved to sit near the front door so he could visit with the customers and Sam always exchanged a few friendly words with the old man who had given him a steady job back in 1942.

For some reason, John Tardy didn’t come to work on the morning of July 16, 1996.  (more…)

Thirty pieces of silver: fear and avarice in a Mississippi town

(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.)

Back in the days of Jim Crow, black people experienced few pleasures and were highly vulnerable to pain.  It wasn’t that hard to bribe people who had nothing or to coerce people who knew they could be beaten or killed with impunity.  A few brave souls bucked the system, but we can’t blame the overwhelming majority who didn’t.

The five (soon to be six) Curtis Flowers murder trials are all about the crude manipulation of ignorant poor folks willing to betray the truth for thirty pieces of silver.

In 1996 Winona, the street value of thirty pieces of silver was $30,000.  That’s how much people on the poor side of Winona were offered for information leading to the conviction of Curtis Flowers.  The man’s name didn’t appear on the posters that were stapled to every street post on the black side of town, but everybody knew who the law was after. (more…)

From Fannie to Curtis: How much has Winona justice changed?

Curtis Flowers on his way to court

(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.)

Seven  years after Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten by the minions of Earl Wayne Patridge, a young woman gave birth to a baby boy in Winona, Mississippi. She named the baby Curtis Giovanni Flowers. Twenty-six years later, Lola Flowers’ baby was charged with murdering Bertha Tardy, Carmen Rigby, Derrick “Bobo” Stewart and Robert Golden in a Winona furniture store.

How much had changed in Winona during Curtis Flowers’ quarter century in the free world?

Winona is the county seat of Montgomery County, once the boldest bastion of white supremacy in the state of Mississippi. Little civil rights brush fires sprang up in Montgomery County in the early 1960s, but men like Sheriff Earl Wayne Patridge and Tom Scarborough of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission made sure they were stomped out before they could spread. Sometimes that meant issuing an extrajudicial beating to uppity black males in the dead of night. When a black school teacher who thought he could register to vote just because he held a masters degree, it was necessary to denounce the man  as a communist agitation and have him fired. If a young black preacher encouraged his flock to vote, he had to be relieved of his pulpit.

What happened to Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, Euvester Simpson and Lawrence Guyot at the Montgomery County Jail fit a well established pattern. But these victims had connections with civil rights luminaries.  By 1963, Martin Luther King had access to the White House and the Department of Justice. When Fannie Lou Hamer told her Winona story on all three major television networks in 1964, the Civil Rights Act had just been passed and the Voting Rights Act was waiting in the wings.

From a distance, it appeared that Fannie Lou Hamer’s team had scored a smashing victory at the expense of Earl Wayne Patridge and his ilk. In a sense, they had. Now black residents could register to vote without placing their jobs in jeopardy or risking a brutal beat-down. And just as little Curtis Giovanni Flowers was drawing his first breath, the doors of Winona’s public schools swung open to black students. (more…)

The Day Fannie Lou Hamer Shocked America

By Alan Bean

“If the freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America.  Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”  Fannie Lou Hamer

The summer of 1964 was a watershed moment for the civil right movement and for America.  Never before had black and white Americans worked together with such common purpose.  And yet, by the end of August, black civil rights leaders were vowing never to work with white people again.   Meanwhile, white civil rights activists realized they didn’t have a home in either of the major political parties.

The voting rights movement had been building momentum in Mississippi since the Freedom Rides of 1961.  The work was dangerous, beatings were commonplace and martyrs were plentiful.  What better way to win protection and attention than to issue a call to idealistic young white people from across America to come to Mississippi for the summer of 1964?  John Kennedy had been assassinated half a year earlier and a still-grieving nation was desperate for healing.

Across the southern states, only 40% of eligible African Americans were registered to vote; in Mississippi it was 6.4%.  As we have seen, civic leaders in the Magnolia State were determined to keep Negroes out of the courthouse.  For the most part, they were successful.  To outsiders this looked like blatant injustice, but the good people of Mississippi felt they were simply preserving a cherished way of life.  Throughout the spring and early summer the young people kept coming, just as they had at the high water mark of the Freedom Ride movement.  They were young, idealistic, dedicated and often remarkably naive.  Fannie Lou Hamer had to take the white girls aside and explain why it was a bad idea to be seen in public with a young black male–no matter how good looking and entertaining he might be.

The big idea was a mock election for the purpose of choosing delegates to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.  Since African Americans were excluded from participating in the formal election process, they formed their own party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and conducted parallel elections that were open to all.  The MFDP was prepared to argue that they should be seated in Atlantic City in preference to Mississippi’s all white “regular” democratic contingent.  The official election was unconstitutional and undemocratic, it was argued, because black voters had been excluded.  Furthermore, it was common knowledge that the Mississippi delegation to the Democratic Convention would be supporting the Republican Barry Goldwater in the fall election.

Throughout the summer, Freedom Schools designed to introduce children to the civil rights movement and the American Constitution popped up across Mississippi.  White Mississippians correctly interpreted the Freedom Schools as the threat to the established order.  In early June a church in the Neshoba County town of Philadelphia was burned to the ground for opening its doors to a Freedom School.  Two young white civil rights workers from New York City, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, traveled to Philadelphia with James Earl Chaney, a black activist from Meridian Mississippi to investigate.  Arriving in town, they were arrested, held for several hours, then released, re-arrested and delivered into the custody of the local Ku Klux Klan.  While search teams were still scouring the area for the missing men, Mississippi Senator, James Eastland, speculated that the entire affair was a publicity stunt designed to make his beloved Mississippi look bad.

When the bodies were finally found buried in a Neshoba County dam, the bodies of all three men were riddled with bullets and Chaney’s body had been horribly mutilated.  During that summer, 35 shooting incidents were reported, six activists were murders, 80 were beaten and 65 houses or churches were burned.

On August 21, 1964, short days before the beginning of the Democratic Convention, seven buses carrying Freedom Democrats from Mississippi rolled up to a modest motel in Atlantic City.  President Lyndon Johnson had been hoping the MDFP would back down; he now realized that wasn’t going to happen.  Everyone knew Johnson was on the verge of naming Minnisota Senator Hubert Humphrey as his running mate, but the formal announcement hadn’t been made.  Humphrey was told that if the credentials of the MDFP deligates were recognized he could forget about being VP.

Lyndon Johnson famously predicted that the 1964 Civil Rights Act would lose him a sizable slice of the South, but his lead in the polls over Goldwater was large and growing.  Still, he was worried.  What if the sight of white delegates storming out of the convention while black delegates took their places sparked an anti-civil rights backlash across the nation.  Besides, Johnson had a good working relationship with Mississippi Senators Jim Eastland and John Stennis and didn’t want to lose their behind-the-scenes support.

Photographers approached the MFDP delegation with a mix of trepidation and curiosity.  One reporter said they had the look of prison escapees who feared they would be re-arrested the minute they re-crossed the Mississippi line.  At the heart of the group stood the indefatigable Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville.  Short and squat in her store-bought dress she was leading the group through a medley of spirituals and freedom songs.

Ed King at the Jackson Woolworth sit-in

The MFDP contingent also had a smattering of white delegates like Ed King, the chaplain of Tougaloo College in Jackson.  King, a veteran of the sit-in movement, had nearly lost his life in a non-accidental highway accident.  The family of slain activist Micheal Schwerner could frequently be seen with the MFDP delegates.  Despite the disapproval of the Democratic hierarchy, MFDP attorney, Joseph Rauh, was able to arrange for a hearing in front of the credentials committee.  Ed King, Martin Luther King, Rita Schwerner (the widow of the slain activist) and Fannie Lou Hamer were selected to address the committee.

While Lyndon Johnson watched in amazement, Fannie Lou Hamer sat down before a jam-packed auditorium and peered, unblinking, into the camera.  “Mr. Chairman and the Credentials Committee,” she said, “my name is Mrs. Fanny Lou Hamer, and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O. Eastland, and Senator Stennis.”

The president was livid.  This ignorant woman (as Johnson called her) was about to set the world on fire.  Hurriedly, Johnson called a press conference to tell reporters nothing they didn’t already know.  It worked.  Network coverage shifted away from the ignorant woman from Ruleville to the most powerful man in the world.

Fannie Lou Hamer talks about Winona justice

Johnson’s reprieve was only temporary.  Hamer’s testimony was so rivetting that the networks replayed her remarks in their entirety later that evening.  Fannie Lou talked about losing her job on the plantation because she had registered to vote in Indianola.  Then she talked about her encounter with Mississippi Justice in the little town of Winona.

“And in June the 9th, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop, was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailway bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi, which is in Montgomery County, four of the people got off to use the washroom, and two of the people—to use the restaurant—two of the people wanted to use the washroom.

“The four people that had gone in to use the restaurant was ordered out. During this time I was on the bus. But when I looked through the window and saw they had rushed out I got off of the bus to see what had happened, and one of the ladies said, “It was a State Highway Patrolman and a Chief of Police ordered us out.”

“I got back on the bus and one of the persons had used the washroom got back on the bus, too.

Trailways Depot in Winona

“As soon as I was seated on the bus, I saw when they began to get the four people in a highway patrolman’s car, I stepped off of the bus to see what was happening and somebody screamed from the car that the four workers was in and said, “Get that one there,” and when I went to get in the car, when the man told me I was under arrest, he kicked me.

“I was carried to the county jail, and put in the booking room. They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Ivesta Simpson. After I was placed in the cell I began to hear the sound of kicks and horrible screams, and I could hear somebody say, “Can you say, yes, sir, nigger? Can you say yes, sir?”

“And they would say other horrible names.

“She would say, “Yes, I can say yes, sir.”

“So say it.”

“She says, “I don’t know you well enough.”

“They beat her, I don’t know how long, and after a while she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.

“And it wasn’t too long before three white men came to my cell. One of these men was a State Highway Patrolman and he asked me where I was from, and I told him Ruleville, he said, “We are going to check this.”

“And they left my cell and it wasn’t too long before they came back. He said, “You are from Ruleville all right,” and he used a curse work, and he said, “We are going to make you wish you was dead.”

“I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State Highway Patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack.

“The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the State Highway Patrolman for me, to lay down on a bunk bed on my face, and I laid on my face.

“The first Negro began to beat, and I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted, and I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side because I suffered from polio when I was six years old.

“After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack.

“The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat me to sit upon my feet to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me my head and told me to hush.

“One white man—since my dress had worked up high, walked over and pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back, back up.

“I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.

“All of this is on account of us wanting to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America, is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?

“Thank you.”

In moments, Democratic Party officials were deluged with phone calls and telegrams from outraged Americans demanding that the MFDP be seated immediately.

Lyndon Johnson was adamant that this must not happen.  A compromise was proposed.  Ed King and Aaron Henry would be seated as representatives of the MFDP and the white Mississippi delegation would be seated in its entirety.  Fannie Lou Hamer decided the issue when she informed her contingent that she didn’t come all the way to Atlantic City “for no two votes.”

The issue was decided by a rushed vote–the white Mississippi regulars would be seated along with King and Henry.  It was too late.  Most of the regulars walked out of the convention in protest.  When MFDP delegates took their places they were ushered out of the building by security personnel.  The second night, every seat in the building was taken so the MFDP contingent marched to the convention floor where Fannie Lou Hamer led them in spirited song.

Stokely Charmichael

The white Mississippi regulars, as expected, abandoned the Democrats for the Republican Goldwater.  They have controlled American politics ever since.  It was no accident that Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair.

Fannie Lou Hamer was disillusioned but undaunted.  When a reporter asked her if she was seeking equality with the white man she peered at him imperiously.  “No,” she said.  “What would I look like fighting for equality with the white man?  I don’t want to go down that low.  I want the true democracy that’ll raise me and that white man up . . . raise America up.”

Are we there yet?  Forty-six years after Ms. Hamer told America the truth about Winona, Mississippi the town remains deeply divided.  The wrongful prosecution of Curtis Flowers has revealed a deep perception gap between Winona’s black and white residents.   In the fourth of five trials, all five black jurors saw through the state’s paper thin evidence while all seven white jurors voted to convict.  When legislation was introduced in a desperate attempt to expand the jury pool only one black senator supported the bill.  It passed anyway thanks to overwhelming support from white senators.

The fact that Mississippi has a handful of black senators shows how much has changed.  But the inability of white residents to call a wrongful prosecution by its proper name demonstrates just how far we have to go.

Curtis, Kelvin, and the City of New Orleans


Two bizarre murder investigations raise questions about the state of the American criminal justice system.

Who dat, who dat, who dat say gonna beat dem Saints? 

If I had a dollar for every time I heard the Saints famous chant during a long and involved Super Bowl night I could fund Friends of Justice in perpetuity.  

I was in Slidell, LA investigating the Kelvin Kaigler story (and a host of related complaints) when I got an invitation from Will Harrell to join him in New Orleans for the big game.  I met Will back in the summer of 2000 when he called me in Tulia to see if there would be any more drug trials.  I told him Kareem White was up on September 7 and a few days later Will, the newly minted Executive Director of the Texas ACLU was walking into the Swisher County Courtroom. 

Although Will and I have spent a lot of time together over the years (he is a very bad influence on this preacher boy) I didn’t know his personal biography very well.  Turns out he hails from Yazoo City, Mississippi and lived as a boy in New Orleans.  He cheered for the Saints when Archie Manning (father of Payton and Eli) quarterbacked the team.  With all the other Saints fans, Will invested most of his life, boy and man, watching the pride of New Orleans slinking off the field in disgrace. 

Not surprisingly, Will was captivated by the football game; brimming with hope, bristling with dread.  A few former neighbors from Austin had shown up to watch the game at his house, but they met some girls in a bar and never returned.  That sort of thing happens a lot in New Orleans.  

So it was just me and Will.  He showed me the paper mache statue of San Simon he was given during his days in Guatemala, and lit the candles he had placed on either side of the icon.  Maybe the patron saint of Latin American freedom could bring the Saints a victory. 

With the Colts down by seven and plenty of time on the clock, Paton Manning trotted onto the field.  “He thinks he’s gonna win,” Will told me.  “There is no doubt in his mind; that’s what makes him so dangerous.” 

But the future hall of famer felt the heat from his left side and fired the ball into first-down territoty a second earlier than he would have liked to.  Tracy Porter, New Orleans fleet defensive back, cut in front of Manning’s receiver, picked off the pass and raced for the end zone.  Forty-three years of frustration had ended.  
A triumphant Will Harrell, bowed to St. Simon, grabbed his double bongo drum, and headed out to the porch.  A stream of jubilant humanity was already flowing down Rue Dauphine toward the French Quarter.  I crossed the street to take a picture of costumed kids with “NOLA” scrawled across their foreheads in black marker.  They grinned for the camera and tossed me some Mardi gras beads. 

By the time I was back to Harrell’s porch he had a smaller bongo slung over his shoulder and was ready to hit the streets.  It was only 10:00 pm so I figured I’d tag along for a while–this was history in the making.  It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t get back to Will’s place until 5:00 am.  

You don’t see real celebration up close very often.  This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill championship celebration; this was Easter morning.  This was redemption.   

As Will and I followed the growing crowd I couldn’t stop thinking about Rodney (Jack) Strain and the anti-New Orleans rant he had delivered three years earlier, particularly the part I failed to quote in my recent Kelvin Kaigler post: “I don’t want to see temporary housing because of Katrina turn into long-term housing for a bunch of thugs and trash that don’t need to be in St. Tammany Parish. We don’t want to wake up one day and find out that New Orleans has been damn successful at running all of the trash out of the city and it end up roosting in St. Tammany.” 

At a meeting earlier that day at the Holy Ghost and Fire World Outreach Center in Slidell, Prophetess Kathleen Bacon told me that the High Sheriff was likely referring to the FEMA trailers that sprouted north of Lake Ponchartrain in the wake of hurricane Katrina.  Conservative white folk have been fleeing New Orleans for generations.  First they fled to the suburbs of Metairie and when upwardly mobile blacks followed suit, folks started moving to the North Shore, settling in places like Covington and Slidell. 

Thinking back on Sheriff Jack’s anti-New Orleans rant I was struck by the man’s confidence–it was as if he saw himself as the embodiment of a people scared to death that their righteous way of life was being contaminated from without.  I had sensed the same paranoid spirit in a sermon delivered by a Baptist pastor in Jena Louisiana shortly after a white student was beaten senseless at the high school.  After celebrating the glories of small town life, the pastor warned his flock that big city vice and violence had invaded their holy Zion in the piney woods.  He was referring, of course, to the Jena 6.  

  But Strain’s revulsion for New Orleans transcended race.  Every race under the sun was on the streets of the French Quarter Super Bowl night, but white folks predominated.  But these were not your Grandma’s white people.  As Will and I followed the joyful throng we passed by an old-time jug band that was sitting in the doorway of a neighborhood bar.  Looking for all world like Charles Manson, the guitarist was strumming his Epiphone guitar and wailing that old Louie Armstrong standard, The Saint James Infirmary Blues: “I went down to the St. James Infirmary, saw my baby there, stretched out on a cold white table, so sweet, so cold, so fair.” 

I wondered if Louie Armstrong had ever performed the song in that very establishment.  If not, he had sung it within a stones’ throw of the place.   St. James Infirmary is a song about the tragic death of a young woman.  The song hints that the singer’s “baby” was the victim of foul play.  That sort of thing happened in old New Orleans.  You run into death on the streets of old New Orleans.  A mad waltz between life and death drives the spirit of celebration for which the town is famous.  Jack Strain’s St. Tammany Parish is all about light and life (to hear Jack tell it anyway); New Orleans lives in the shadowlands between the light of life and the dark shroud of death.  

There is nothing subtle about this death dance.  You see it on the walls of the little bars: skulls, skeletons and other harbingers of death.  There is more than a hint of threat and intimidation in some of the costumes I saw on the street Super Bowl night.  People were not trying to look pretty or sexy; they were trying to look grotesque and slightly dangerous.  And they succeeded. 
Still, most of the folks in the pink hair and garish costumes live relatively normal lives and are in little danger of driving over the cliff.  Their regular celebrations of animal appetite are only one side of the picture; they are also parents with children to care for and employees with jobs to go to.  Moreover, the rules to New Orleans Bacchanalia are solidly anchored in the history of the town–these folks know what to do and how to do it–even when dem Saints win de big game.  What could be more reassuringly innocent than a sousaphone blaring out When the Saints go Marching in?
And then there is the traditional role of New Orleans religion.  These sinners are also saints.  Mardi gras provides one last celebration before Ash Wednesday ushers in the somber season of Lent.  There is a rhythm to these things.  New Orleans is far more than a party town–at least for those who live there long enough to soak in the history.
On the other hand, Sheriff Jack Strain has a point; a lot of people go off the rails in New Orleans.   In fact, many were never on the rails in the first place.  Take away the counterbalance of work, family and religion and big cities like New Orleans can get pretty bleak.  Thousands of people are too captive to their addictions to celebrate anything.  The demand for booze, marijuana and hard narcotics will always be supplied.  In the booze category, a rough and ready set of local and state rules apply.  For the illegal stuff, only the threat of violence keeps folks honest.  When people don’t hold up their end of the contract you can’t take them to small claims court.  Bones must be broken–and that’s just for starters.
Back in 1986, Clyde Simpson, a Mississippi boy, was asked to store bales of marijuana in his garage in exchange for $50,000.  Clyde had a little painting business at the time and his brother Doyle had come down from Winona to help him.  One day somebody broke into Clyde’s garage and stole a few bales of marijuana.  That made things contractually complicated.  Did the big boys still owe Doyle his $50,000, or did he now owe them?  To settle the issue, the big boys decided to take out a hit on poor Clyde. 
One morning in December, Doyle Simpson pulled up to Clyde’s place and waited in his car in the driveway for his brother to come out.  Doyle didn’t know that a man with a knife and a gun was hiding behind the fence at the side of the house.  When Clyde emerged, the man slit his throat like a watermelon and pushed him inside the house.  Clyde was in shock.  He rushed to the refrigerator to find ice for his throat, but two bullets put him on the floor.  As a puddle of blood began to form on the kitchen floor, the man with the knife burst out the front door and caught sight of Doyle waiting in his car.  Thinking on his feet, the man climbed into the car, held his gun to Doyle’s head, and told him to drive.
When Doyle had driven fifteen miles west, the man with the knife told him to stop the car.  Doyle was handcuffed to a tree.  His throat was cut.  Two bullets were fired and both found their mark.  The man went back to the car to reload his weapon, then, deciding Doyle was dead, climbed into the car and attempted to drive away.  But the car was helplessly stuck in the mud, so the man ended up hitching a ride on the highway.
Doyle Simpson found a broken bottle and was able to saw off the limb that tethered him to the tree.  He then staggered to the highway, collapsing on the roadway just as a trucker rounded the bend.  The driver drove Doyle to the hospital just in time to save his life.
The killer, a hired thug named Horace Toppins Jr, was charged with several counts in two Louisiana parishes and eventually sentenced to 30 years.  It looked for all the world like an paid hit, but the victims were low status so nobody traced the crime back to its source.
Ten years later, in 1996, Doyle was back in Winona, Mississippi when somebody sold him a gun.  Two months later, four people were gunned down in Tardy’s Furniture Store in Winona, the very morning Doyle reported his gun had been stolen from the glove compartment of his car.  Ballistics tests demonstated that whoever killed Bertha Tardy and three employees had used Doyle Simpson’s gun.  Doyle was picked up and asked who sold him the gun.  Doyle said he got the gun from his step-brother, Robert Campbell.
It was a lie.  
Confronted by investigators, Doyle said he had purchased the gun from a friend named “Ike”, but Doyle didn’t know the man’s last name. 
Surprisingly, no one has ever pressed Doyle on the Ike question, perhaps because everybody knows its pointless.  

But Robert Campbell, Doyle’s half-brother, believes that the mystery man who placed the murder weapon in Doyle’s hands is connected to the Tardy murders.  Moreover, Campbell argues that the folks that paid to have Clyde Simpson murdered in 1986 were behind the murders in Winona in 1996.   

Independently, I have come to the same conclusion.  I have no idea why anyone would want Bertha Tardy dead; but somebody did.  Since its hard to find an experienced hitman in Montgomery County, Mississippi, it was natural to look to a big city like Memphis or New Orleans.  And if you wanted access to hired killers in the Crescent City, Doyle Simpson (a man who had worked at Tardy Furniture in the past) would be the man to approach.  

I am not suggesting that Doyle Simpson was the trigger man, or even that he anticipated the horrible crime.  But anyone who has seen the man testify or, like me, read through the transcripts of all five trials, knows that Doyle Simpson makes a frightened witness.  

Did anyone steal the murder weapon from Doyle Simpson’s car the morning of July 16, 1996?  We have only Doyle’s  word for it and, as we have seen, he is not a credible witness.  Was the gun stolen at all, or did someone from Doyle’s New Orleans past make an offer the Winona boy couldn’t refuse?  

There is little evidence that these questions have ever been asked.  Certainly not by Doug Evans, the Mississippi prosecutor who decided the day Bertha Tardy died that an ex-employee named Curtis Flowers did the deed.  No other options were ever considered.  Evans didn’t want to ruffle feathers in Winona’s white community by suggesting that somebody held a grudge against a well-respected local merchant.  Of course, prosecuting Curtis Flowers has ruffled plenty of feathers in Winona’s black community, but Mr. Evans can live with that.  

As we have seen, the fabled dark side of New Orleans received national attention ten years after the Tardy murders.  As in Winona, four people had been killed execution style in the North Shore town of Slidell.  Investigators speculated that Roxy Agoglia, a heroin addict and heroin dealer with roots in New Orleans, had angered the kind of people that came after Clyde Simpson twenty years earlier.  Jack Strain certainly thought so.  St. Tammany Parish had never seen a quadruple murder. New Orleans trash, Sheriff Jack told the cameras, had invaded the fair precincts of St. Tammany Parish and somebody was going to pay.  A young witness told investigators that one of the killers had a scar on one cheek, a tatoo on his arm, and wore dreadlocks.  To Sheriff Jack, that description had New Orleans Trash written all over it.  

This explains why the first year of the murder investigation into the quadruple murders in Slidell focused on New Orleans heroin dealers with a penchant for violence.  An investigator named Scott Davis was focusing his attention on a white heroin dealer who used two black men for “muscle”, one of whom had dreads, a tatoo and a scar.  This fit witness testimony perfectly: a white guy waiting in the car while two black assailants pulled off the hit.  

Then Gus Bethea had a chat with a Slidell drug dealer named Frank Knight.  Frank was one of those denizens of New Orleans who never had a shot at the straight life.  His mother was shooting heroin and dealing on the streets when Frank was born.  In fact, it was Frank’s mother who suggested that her darling boy should confess to the police.  

I know this sounds odd.  Why would anyone say they were party to a notoriously violent drug hit if they had nothing to do with the crime?  Well, if you are looking at 60 hard years for a multitude of drug-related felonies and the nice man in the uniform is hinting that you might be on the streets in seven years if you sign a confession, you sign the paper.  Then you ask what you are signing so you will know what to say on the witness stand.  

The New Orleans connection disappeared and Scott Davis was busted from detective to street patrol.  The DA’s office had a confession and they knew a St. Tammany jury would buy it.  So what if Frank Knight was fabricating a story in exchange for a get-0ut-of-jail-free card; a difficult case would be closed.

Once again, investigators refused to ask the obvious questions.  Why would a young man like Kelvin Kaigler murder Roxy Agoglia and three innocent relatives?  True, in High School, Kelvin always told his friends that he was from New Orleans; Slidell sounded so uncool.  He dropped out of High School, got a job on the riverfront in New Orleans, fell in with the sort of people Jack Strain rails about, and began experimenting with crack cocaine.   

Debbie Callens and Gloria Kaigler

Then, about a year before the quadruple murders in Slidell, Kelvin Kaigler’s life underwent a dramatic reversal.  He developed a love for Christian rap music and cut off all contact with his former friends in New Orleans.    “Kelvin was working in New Orleans when he had a car accident,” neighbor Debbie Callens, told me.  “He totalled his car and didn’t want to replace it.  He was doing landscaping work aroun the neighborhood and my husband and I had him work in our yard.  When that kid smiles, everything lights up.  He has a very bkind spirit, very gentle.  When you see Kelvin, you can see into his soul.  He told me he didn’t want a car because it wanted to stay close to home.”  

“We felt like he was turning the corner,” Kelvin’s brother Earl tells me.   “The guys he had been hanging with in New Orleans were kind of sketchy; the kind of people that would make money and blow it.  But once he settled down, every penny Kelvin made was going into his music and his CD.”  
The lyrics on the CD Kelvin released prior to his arrest are an earnest testimony to the dramatic conversion playing out in his soul.   

Kelvin Kaigler

“Something’s missing inside,” he sings.  “I’m tryin’ to think of what it could be.  All the pain that I’m feeling, all the death that’s all around me.  Lookin’ at myself up in the mirror, thinking where I went wrong.” 

“No more chains holding me down,” Kelvin declares in another song, “bustin’ loose, flying free.  I’m so weak, but the Lord kept me by his side, and brought me through all the rain, no more pain, and from that day, my life could never be the same.  No more chains.”  

Then everything fell apart.  “The first week in August, Mr. John (that’s my father) closes down his barber shop in New Orleans, rents a van, and drives the whole family to Cairo, Georgia, to pick up my mother’s 90 year-old mother.  Then we all drive up to Gatlinburg.  It’s mostly white tourists up there, but we always have a good time.  In 2007, Kelvin came along for the first time in a long time, and that’s when he was arrested.  He saw them coming and told Mr. John he might want to open the door.  These deputies busted into the room witht their guns drawn the second night the family was up there.  One of them said he knew Kelvin didn’t do it, but they thought he might know something.  But in the papers they made it look as if Kelvin was a fugitive from justice.  

Kelvin Kaigler and Curtis Flowers have a lot in common.  Both men love gospel music: Kelvin likes rap and Curtis (a generation older) prefers the traditional sound.  Curtis leads the singing at prison church services and Kelvin continues to write rap songs behind bars.  When I talked to him in the company of his attorney, Martin Regan, Kelvin was radiant.  Like Curtis Flowers, Kaigler has no doubt that he will one day be exonerated.  Martin Regan agrees, but knows they face a difficult legal fight.   

Kelvin and Curtis share more than a love for gospel music; neither man is capable of killing four people in cold blood and neither man possesses the slightest motive for doing so.  Roxy Agoglia, the woman who was murdered in Slidell in 1996, was a heroin dealer murdered because she couldn’t pay her debts.  Kelvin Kaigler has no connection to the heroin trade.  Neither does James Bishop, the second man Frank Knight says was with him on the fateful night.  

Curtis Flowers had no reason to wish any harm to Bertha Tardy.  True, Tardy and Flowers had a disagreement over some damaged batteries.  “I was with Curtis more than once when Miss Bertha called him,” Robert Campbell told me today.  “She was begging him to come back to work, but he wasn’t interested.  He told me, ‘I don’t want a job where I deliver a piece of furniture and then, three days later, I go out and haul it back to the store.'”  

Curtis Flowers held no personal animus toward Bertha Tardy.  The woman gave him an $30 advance on his salary so he could enjoy the Fourth of July Holiday and begged him to return when the work week resumed.  But Curtis had already decided to move in with his sister in Dallas where he could make twice the minimum wage salary he was pulling in Winona.  The idea that he would kill four innocent people (two of them personal acquaintances) over a minor salary dispute is simply preposterous.

While two innocent men languish in prison the real perpetrators of mass murders in Slidell, Louisiana and Winona, Mississippi continue to ply their dangerous trade, likely on the streets of New Orleans.

Vengeance in the courtroom

Stanley Fish is a law professor who writes a column for the New York Times.  In his latest offering, Fish describes the revenge-vengeance film genre.  According to Fish, Iam Neeson’s lines from “Taken” summarize the plotline we have come to expect from this sort of film:

“If you’re looking for ransom, I don’t have any money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career, skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.” 

According to Dr. Fish, “The formula’s popularity stems from the permission it gives viewers to experience the rush violence provides without feeling guilty about it. The plot gives the hero the same permission when a wife or daughter or brother or girlfriend . . . is abducted, injured or killed.”

The revenge-vengeance only works, of course, if the carnage depicted on-screen is a response to some despicable act perpetrated by a genuinely nasty villain or, better yet, group of villains.  “Once the atrocity has occurred,” Fish says, “the hero acquires an unquestioned justification for whatever he or she then does; and as the hero’s proxy, the audience enjoys the same justification for vicariously participating in murder, mayhem and mutilation. In fact, the audience is really the main character in many of these films. You can almost see the director calculating the point at which identification with the hero or heroine will be so great that the desire to see vengeance done will overwhelm any moral qualms viewers might otherwise have.” (more…)