Charges dropped against Curtis Flowers!
Friends of Justice has been working to free Curtis Flowers for 12 years. He’s been locked up twice that long.
On Sept. 4, 2020, after six flawed murder trials, Lynn Fitch, attorney general of Mississippi, dismissed the charges against Curtis with prejudice. That means the state can’t indict him a seventh time.
Viewed through a lens of justice, we may wonder why it took so long for a case this weak to unravel. But when you understand how hard it is to vacate a death sentence, the attorney general’s decision feels like a miracle. Twenty-three years after being wrongly arrested for a brutal quadruple murder, Curtis Flowers is free.
I was speaking to a legal conference in New Orleans about my advocacy work with Friends of Justice when I first learned of the Flowers saga. Ray Carter, Flowers’ lead attorney, told me his client had been to trial five times on the same charges. The crime took place in Winona, Miss., the town where Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights icon, was beaten half to death in 1963. A sixth trial, Carter told me, was scheduled for June 2010.
A week later, I was in Winona, visiting with Curtis’ parents, Archie and Lola Flowers. They introduced me to friends and family members, who told me all the reasons why Curtis was an innocent man.
They showed me the furniture store where four innocent people had been murdered execution-style early one June morning in 1996.
I talked to two people who had been questioned by the local police. They were shown a handbill offering a $30,000 reward for information leading to a final conviction. Then they were shown a picture of Curtis Flowers. All they had to do was say they saw Curtis, at a particular place and time, on the morning of the crime.
The folks I talked to refused to take the bait. Others were not so principled. Once they signed a statement, they were informed that they would be subpoenaed to testify and that the penalty for perjury was severe.
District Attorney Doug Evans transformed these isolated bits of testimony into the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. No single witness saw Curtis do the deed, but the state used the words of these supposed witnesses to trace the suspect’s journey from his duplex apartment to the scene of the crime and back again.
In Winona’s Black community, these witnesses never were taken seriously. No one personally acquainted with the soft-spoken gospel singer believed he was capable of murder.
“I’ve worked in this jail a long time,” a prison guard told me, “and I can tell you one thing: Curtis doesn’t belong in here. He is kind, compassionate, helpful and always respectful. Curtis Flowers,” the man told me, “is the finest young man that ever put on a pair of pants.”
White residents didn’t think Curtis was guilty; they knew he was guilty. Sure, the case was circumstantial, but they believed the witnesses DA Evans assembled. Curtis had to be guilty, the reasoning went, because the crime was so heinous. If Curtis wasn’t the killer, it was likely that the crime never would be solved. That was unthinkable. Somebody had to pay.
When I arrived in Winona for trial number six, the atmosphere was electric. I was accompanied by my daughter, Lydia Bean, and Liliana Ibarra, a young woman from Boston who had participated in our fight for justice in Tulia, Texas, a decade earlier. Once white residents saw us sitting on the Black side of the courtroom, they immediately became suspicious. The father of one of the victims confronted me in front of the courthouse and suggested I was having improper relations with Lydia and Liliana. Anybody who believed that Flowers was innocent, he said, was either drunk or stupid, and he didn’t think I had been drinking.
Evans always had been able to get easy guilty verdicts from all-white juries. But since Winona is half Black, Evans couldn’t get a monochrome jury without revealing his racial bias. When racially diverse juries were selected, they split along racial lines.
Over the years, I have dedicated more than 40 blog posts to the Flower case, paying particular attention to the fraught racial history of the region.
Gradually, I began to understand the fear. Whites were afraid their “Southern way of life” was under assault. Blacks learned that challenging the Southern way of life could get you fired or even land you in an early grave.
Every time Curtis went to trial, the fear in Winona was palpable. Everyone in the white community was close to one or more of the murder victims, and every new trial forced them to relive the horror.
Black residents lived in fear that an innocent man would be condemned to death.
We stayed with Archie and Lola through a trial that stretched over a week and a half. When the death sentence was announced, Archie and Lola left the courtroom with quiet dignity. This wasn’t their first rodeo.
We all believed justice was coming. We didn’t realize it would take another 10 years.
When Mississippi’s highest court upheld the conviction, the case moved to the federal level. It is almost impossible to get a case before the Supreme Court, but this was not a typical case. And Curtis had excellent legal representation.
The big break came on May 3, 2017, when I got an email from Madeleine Baran with the In the Dark podcast. “I came across your website while researching,” Madeleine told me, “and I’d like to learn more about the Flowers case.” Two weeks later, Baran arrived at my doorstep accompanied by her producer, Samara Freemark. They had read every word I had written and spent two full days peppering me with questions.
In the Dark planned to spend a full year in Winona doing interviews, sifting through documentary evidence and asking hard questions.
Over the past three years, they have produced 19 episodes dedicated exclusively to the Flowers case. Working from my blueprint, they took the inquiry to the next level. Soon they had millions of devoted listeners. Witnesses began recanting. DA Evans was being deluged with letters demanding that he drop the charges against Curtis.
Nine years after the somber conclusion to trial six, the Supreme Court vacated the conviction due to racial bias in jury selection. But the 7-2 ruling suggested that the justices had been listening to In the Dark and reading my posts. The case was sent back to the court in Winona. Judge Joseph Loper, who had experienced a surprising change of heart, released Curtis on bail.
Finally, nine months later, we received the joyous news.
It is easy to blame this travesty on a single prosecutor from Mississippi. That would be a mistake. The brand of racism at work in this case is systemic. People believed Flowers was guilty for the same reason they believe in conspiracy theories like QAnon. Those who fear their cherished way of life is in jeopardy are predisposed to trust authority figures who embody their fear.
Curtis Flowers is in no mood to give interviews. Not yet. But in a brief statement released the day of his liberation, he said that what happened to him is happening throughout Mississippi and across America.
Tragically, he’s right. So the work of Friends of Justice goes on.
Curtis Flowers is back in the free world! This quick post links to the article in the New York Times, but the story has been carried in every major media outlet including the Winona Times. Significantly, Judge Joseph Loper excoriated District Attorney Doug Evans for failing to respond to defense motions and for not even showing up at the December 16 hearing in Winona. This suggests that the legal community in Mississippi has had enough of this case and wishes to see the charges against Mr. Flowers dismissed as expeditiously as possible.
The Supreme Court of the United States, by a 7-2 vote, has thrown out the 2010 conviction of Curtis Flowers. Curtis was moved from death row in the notorious Parchman prison and is now in pre-trial custody about an hour from Winona. Now the big question is whether charges will be dismissed or whether there will be an unprecedented seventh trial.
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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