On June 21, 2019, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Curtis Flowers! In this post, we explain why the court ruled for Curtis and where we go from here.
If you are wondering how it was possible to convict Mr. Flowers without any meaningful evidence you will find some fascinating (and deeply distressing) historical background and theological reflection in a post in which I compare the six trials of Curtis Flowers to the time loop found in the old Groundhog Day movie.
In theory, there could be a seventh trial. And the way the rules are drawn, if Doug Evans wants to represent the state of Mississippi in this matter no one can stop him. But that isn’t likely to happen for reasons laid out in “Why there will be no seventh trial for Curtis Flowers”, this case is just getting too embarrassing for the Magnolia State.
Curtis Flowers is an innocent man from Winona, Mississippi who is sitting in a sweltering death row cell in the notorious Parchman prison. Curtis has been to trial an unprecedented six times, charged with killing four people in cold blood in July, 1996. For the past decade, Friends of Justice has been getting out the word through lengthy blog posts (see below) designed to catch the interest of investigative journalists.
This year, we hit paydirt.
In the Dark, an award-winning podcast affiliated with American Public Media, has been working on the Flowers case for over a year and is devoting ten hour-long episodes to the Flowers case. They have tracked down and interviewed every person involved in this convoluted case and the fruit of their labor will floor you.
The In the Dark website includes much more than links to the podcast episodes. You will also find in-depth discussions of the legal and moral implications of the case, videos of police interviews with potential witnesses, and legal documents that will take you as deep into this story as you want to go.
Although Friends of Justice director, Alan Bean, was interviewed early in the production process, In the Dark came to the story independently. A seasoned team of crack journalists and investigators has been digging into every detail of this story for over a year. Not only have they corroborated the contentions attorneys and activists have been making for years, they are breaking new ground that, in time, will make it virtually impossible for this prosecution to stand.
When Friends of Justice first got involved in the Flowers case in 2007, it was widely assumed that Flowers was guilty and the prosecution, though a bit overzealous in their pursuit of white jurors, had a pretty air-tight case. When Alan Bean tried to get the Jackson Clarion-Ledger to take a closer look he was met with polite smiles.
Nobody is smiling now. The Clarion-Ledger is producing its own investigative series in cooperation with the In the Dark team. Friends of Justice has discovered, in places like Tulia, Texas and Jena, Louisiana, that when a bogus prosecution receives sustained attention from national media the center will not hold.
Please listen to In the Dark, season two. It is beautifully-paced, skillfully produced, and will hold the attention of even the most distracted listener.
CURTIS FLOWERS: AN INNOCENT MAN TRIED SIX TIMES FOR THE SAME CRIME
On July 16, 1996, four people were murdered in a furniture store in Winona, a small town in Montgomery County, Mississippi. Within hours, the daughter of one of the victims happened upon a check made out to the store’s former employee, Curtis Flowers. In her grief, she became certain that Mr. Flowers committed the murders. The State’s investigators made Mr. Flowers their prime suspect before uncovering any evidence tying him to the crime. From that day forward, the State’s efforts were focused on convicting Mr. Flowers. Any evidence uncovered was valued only for its ability to prove Mr. Flowers’ guilt.
For hours after the discovery of the crime, the scene was not controlled. No one knows who entered the scene or when they entered. For months afterward, no one came forward with information. Only when the State made promises to pay $30,000 for information did people, poor and desperate for cash, claim to have remembered what happened on the morning of the crime. Unsurprisingly, they remembered exactly what the investigators wanted to hear.
Robert Johnson, former chief of the Jackson, Mississippi police department, called the investigation that led to Mr. Flowers’ arrest “the worst investigation [he] had ever seen.” The jury was not allowed to hear Mr. Johnson’s testimony during Mr. Flowers’ trial.
Curtis Flowers has spent more than fifteen years imprisoned and after an unprecedented six trials, has been sentenced to death. How did this happen?
It happened, first, because the investigators had tunnel vision–too quickly and without real evidence, they decided that Mr. Flowers was guilty and all their work focused on proving this theory.
Secondly, it happened because Winona, Mississippi is a place ripe for injustice of exactly this type.
When a small town is visited by a horrific crime that leaves four dead, people are devastated. Pressure mounts on law enforcement officials to move quickly to solve the crime, make an arrest, convict the perpetrator, and let the town and the state find some peace. So, after the murders in Winona, Mississippi law enforcement officials had to find answers and quick.
This kind of pressure puts blinders on investigators. Instead of examining all possible theories of how and why the crime was committed, they chose just one. Instead of casting a broad net to find any possible evidence, they search specifically for evidence that their chosen suspect person committed the crime.
In Winona in July 1996, investigators were glad to have a suspect, Mr. Flowers, within hours of the murder. The fact that they had no evidence tying him to the crime was simply an obstacle to be overcome. Their only remaining task was to gather enough evidence to convict him. Because Mr. Flowers is innocent, the State’s evidence is weak.
It’s key witness was later prosecuted by the federal government for fraud. The testimony of other witnesses is tainted. Neither the murder weapon nor the shoes allegedly worn by the murderer have been found.
These murders happened in Montgomery County, Mississippi, a place with a long and unsettling history of racial injustice. It is no accident that jurors’ and citizens’ opinions of guilt divide along racial lines. Mr. Flowers is not the first black citizen of Montgomery County to become the victim of the white establishment’s efforts to preserve their historic way of life. The stories of people like civil rights hero Fannie Lou Hamer, bootleggers Roosevelt Towns and Bootjack McDaniels, and travellers Nathaniel and Freddie Moore and Jake Daniels illustrate Winona’s historical backdrop and provide the setting for Mr. Flower’s prosecution.
This history begins to explain why when repeated attempts to convict Mr. Flowers failed, Mississippi legislators tried to change court rules to get a conviction in this one case. It helps to explain why Judge Loper, faced with a second hung jury, insisted on the prosecution of the black juror who could not in good conscience vote guilty at the conclusion of the fifth trial.
This history helps explain why an innocent man is brought to trial six separate times for the same crime.
Read more background on the Flowers case:
Flowers PowerPoint presentation, posted June 2, 2010, a summary of the Flowers case up to the eve of the sixth trial.
Associated Press covers Flowers trial, posted June 5, 2010.
CNN covers the Curtis Flowers trial, posted June 7, 2010.
Fanny Lou Hamer’s Spiritual Warfare, posted November 20, 2009, discussing Ms. Hamer’s spiritual interpretation of the freedom struggle.
“Songs got us through”: Fannie Lou Hamer in Winona, posted December 10, 2009, recounting the violent opposition to Mississippi’s movement members.
Fannie Lou Hamer and the white only courtrooms of Mississippi, posted December 18, 2009, continuing the story of violence against Mississippi’s freedom workers.
The Day Fannie Lou Hamer Shocked America, posted February 26, 2010, quoting Ms. Hamer’s testimony before Congress about her brutal arrest by Mississippi law enforcement opposed to the civil rights movement.
From Fannie to Curtis: How much has Winona justice changed?, posted April 6, 2010, comparing the treatment and prosecution of two black Mississippians.
A Nice Girl Like You, posted July 16, 2009, discussing Winona’s state senator Lydia Chassaniol’s connection to the white separatist group, Council of Conservative Citizens.
A House Divided, posted July 17, 2009, explaining how and why Winona’s black and white communities starkly divide over Mr. Flower’s guilt or innocence.
Prom Night in Mississippi, posted July 17, 2009, reporting on 21st century segregation in Mississippi.
Strom Thurmond’s Ghost, posted July 29, 2009, retracing the history of Mississippi race relations through its elected officials.
The Antichrist World of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, posted August 7, 2009, recounting Mississippi’s efforts to preserve its way of life in the face of changes wrought by the civil rights movement.
Meddlesome Intruders: The Freedom Riders hit Jackson, Mississippi, posted August 11, 2009, reviewing Paul Hendrickson’s Sons of Mississippi and discussing the civil rights resentment that is a staple of Mississippi life.
Civil Rights Tremors Rumble through Montgomery County, posted August 21, 2009, explaining the impact of the civil rights movement on the citizens of Winona, Mississippi.
The Greenwood Movement, posted September 1, 2009, tracing the history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi cotton town Greenwood, 30 miles west of Winona.
We Dare Not Bury the Past, posted September 8, 2009, telling startling narratives of accused murders in Montgomery County, Mississippi.
The Shallow Graves of Mississippi, posted September 30, 2009, providing a background on Montgomery County, Mississippi.
Praying for the President in a Southern Town, posted October 2, 2009, outlining white racial resentment in Winona, Mississippi.
The Roots of Racial Injustice, posted June 2, 2010, discussing a report from the Equal Justice Initiative and how these factors influence this case.
Coming of Age in Mississippi, posted May 27, 2010.
Fannie Lou Hamer, Curtis, and Montgomery County Justice, posted January 27, 2012.
Thirty Pieces of Silver: Fear and Avarice in a Mississippi Town, posted April 8, 2010, discussing the state’s manipulation of poor people by paying for testimony in this case.
The Bloody Footprint, posted April 12, 2010, discussing the only piece of physical evidence linking Mr. Flowers to this case.
Doyle Simpson’s Gun, posted April 13, 2010, evaluating the state’s contrived theory about the murder weapon and the one person who knows about it.
The Finest Young Man that Ever Put on a Pair of Pants, posted April 27, 2010, outlining Mr. Flower’s character and reputation.
Bringing Justice to Winona, Mississippi, posted June 23, 2010, a call for a fresh investigation for these murders.
Strange Doings in Magnolia County, posted July 23, 2009, recounting the charges filed against juror James Bibbs who caused the hung jury after trial number five.
Bibbs Perjury Trial Postponed, posted July 27, 2009, updating news about Mr. Bibbs’ trial.
Mississippi Drops Charges Against James Bibbs, posted October 9, 2009, providing the final chapter on the trumped up charges filed against Flowers juror Mr. Bibbs.
Read more about Mississippi’s willingness to change the rules just to convict:
Supporters of Flowers Bill Try Again, posted January 4, 2010, reporting on the reintroduction of a bill designed to convict Mr. Flowers.
Follow our live blogging of Mr. Flower’s Sixth Trial:
Five Reasons You Should Follow the Trial of Curtis Flowers, posted May 25, 2010.
Flowers Case Highlights Racial Bias in Jury Selection, posted June 2, 2010.
Fear Stalks a Mississippi Town: Curtis Flowers Trial, Day 1, posted June 8, 2010.
Trouble in Loperland: Curtis Flowers Trial, Day 2, posted June 9, 2010.
Flowers Case Featured on Public Radio, posted June 9, 2010.
Law Student Harrassed by Montgomery County Deputy, posted June 10, 2010, law student intern observing Flowers trial encounter with law enforcement.
White Answers: Curtis Flowers Trial, Day 3, posted June 10, 2010.
Come to Jesus Time: Curtis Flowers Trial, Day 4, posted June 11, 2010.
Lili Ibara Reports from Mississippi, posted June 11, 2010, a Friends of Justice board member shares her account after watching the first three days of trial.
African Amerian Mississippi Man Starts Record Sixth Trial for Murder, posted June 11, 2010.
Our Readers Respond, posted June 12, 2010.
Horror Show: Curtis Flowers Trial, Day 5, posted June 12, 2010.
From the Rabbit Side of the Room, Curtis Flowers Trial, Day 6, posted June 13, 2010.
Bibbs Fallout Explains Lack of Black Representation on Flowers Jury, posted June 14, 2010.
Smoke or Fog: Curtis Flowers Trial, Day 8, posted June 16, 2010.
The Defense Begins its Case: Curtis Flowers Trial, Day 9, posted June 17, 2010.
Standards? We Don’t Need no Steenking Standards! Curtis Flowers Trial, Day 10, posted June 18, 2010.
The Fifth Victim: The Curtis Flowers Trial, Day 11, posted June 19, 2010.
Curtis Flowers Sentenced to Die, posted June 20, 2010.
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