The persecution of Curtis Flowers

DR. ALAN Bean is the executive director of Friends of Justice, a nonprofit organization that works to uphold due process in the criminal justice system. It was formed in response to the infamous Tulia, Texas, drug sting of 1999, in which forty-seven people, thirty-nine of them African Americans, were rounded up based on the false testimony of a corrupt and racist undercover agent. Bean, a local Baptist minister, played a key role in organizing to expose the Tulia travesty and working to free the defendants. The Texas legislature, in response to the work of the Friends of Justice, passed the Tulia Corroboration Bill, which has led to the exoneration of dozens of innocent people by raising the evidentiary standards for undercover testimony.

Learning from this victory, Friends of Justice established Operation Blind Justice, organizing in affected communities across Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi to restore due process protections to poor people of color. Bean and Friends of Justice played an instrumental role in publicizing the Jena 6 case, where six African-American high school students faced long prison terms after a fight with white students following the hanging of nooses on campus to intimidate Black students.

Over 30,000 people marched in Jena, Louisiana, in September 2007 to protest the prosecution of the Jena 6. The charges against five of them were expunged from their records. Recently, Friends of Justice has turned its attention to Winona, Mississippi— a town not far from Philadelphia, where three civil rights workers were murdered in the early 1960s. There, Curtis Flowers faces his sixth trial for the same murder charge. So far, the case has received more attention in Great Britain than it has in the American press. A primer on the Curtis Flowers case can be found at the Friends of Justice Web site. See also an interview with Bean on the Jena 6 case in ISR issue 55, November–December 2007.

TELL US about the case of Curtis Flowers and its historical significance.

WHEN CURTIS Flowers goes to trial in June of this year, he will become the first man in U.S. history to be tried six times on the same murder charges. In July of 1996, four people were shot to death in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi. Curtis Flowers, a young African-American Winona resident, had worked for the furniture store for three days and two weeks before the murders. When a check in his name was discovered on the desk of the murdered proprietor, Bertha Tardy, Flowers became the prime suspect.

Because nothing apart from the check on Ms. Tardy’s desk connected Curtis to the crime, it took District Attorney Doug Evans over half a year to build a case. It appeared certain that the murder weapon belonged to Doyle Simpson, a part-time janitor at a local garment factory. Simpson reported that the weapon had been stolen from his car the morning of the murders. According to the state’s theory of the crime, Curtis Flowers walked from his home to the parking lot of the garment factory, stole Simpson’s handgun, and walked home. An hour later, he walked to the furniture store, killed four people, and walked back to his home. Investigators spent six months walking the route Flowers allegedly followed, offering a $30,000 reward to anyone who remembered seeing Curtis Flowers passing by their home on the fateful morning. It took several months before any witnesses provided information to the police, and some didn’t cooperate with the investigation until half a year after the murders.

The first two trials were held outside Winona and Montgomery County. Flowers was convicted and sentenced to death on both occasions, but the verdicts were vacated by the Mississippi Supreme Court due to prosecutorial misconduct. The third trial took place in Winona, and once again Flowers was convicted and sentenced to death, but the Supreme Court ruled that the prosecutor illegally prevented African-American residents from serving on the jury.

The fourth trial was held in Winona in December of 2007. This time a chastened Doug Evans made no effort to restrict jury service to white residents and a jury of five African-Americans and seven whites was selected. The jury split along racial lines; all five Black jurors voted to acquit; all seven white jurors voted to convict.

The tension in Winona is so extreme that when a Black juror voted to acquit at the conclusion of the fifth trial in 2008, Judge Joseph Loper told DA Evans to charge the man with perjury. Eventually, both the judge and the prosecutor were recused from the case and the Mississippi attorney general’s office quietly dismissed the charges.

Friends of Justice agreed to get involved in the Flowers case because it fits an all-too-familiar pattern of testimony shaping and witness manipulation. The recent rash of DNA-based exonerations have revealed that wrongful conviction is a much worse problem than most people realize, that faulty witness identification is the chief culprit, and that people of color have been disproportionately impacted. The Flowers case is the perfect poster child for this problem.

WHY HAVE Mississippi prosecutors staked so much on this case?

THE TARDY murders (as they are now called) presented District Attorney Doug Evans with every prosecutor’s worst nightmare: a particularly heinous murder involving socially prominent victims and very little real evidence. Since the name of Curtis Flowers had been associated with the case from the beginning, Evans had no choice but to make the best case he could. If the prosecutor didn’t have evidence connecting Flowers to the crime, evidence had to be found.

It is commonly assumed that African-American jurors take Flowers’ side in this case out of a perverse desire to protect one of their own. The truth is much more complicated than that. African-American residents of Winona and Montgomery County know Curtis Flowers as the lead singer in a popular gospel quartet that performs regularly in local churches. Whoever pulled the trigger four times in the Tardy furniture store in 1996 was a cold-blooded killer, a person devoid of conscience. Those who know Curtis best believe he is incapable of committing such a crime under any circumstances. In addition, many African-American residents question the credibility of the witnesses in the Flowers case. White residents in this racially divided community have no personal experience with Curtis Flowers or the largely African-American witnesses who originally agreed to testify in anticipation of a $30,000 payoff, and are therefore willing to accept the state’s narrative.

Defense counsel wants to keep holding trials in Winona. They doubt they can win a clear acquittal, but so long as they can place one African-American juror in the jury box they have a good shot at a hung jury. Frustrated by this strategy, DA Evans has shaped legislation that would allow the prosecution in cases that have gone to trial at least three times, to select a jury from a five-county region. This would make it possible to seat a jury in which no one is even slightly acquainted with the Flowers family. The “Flowers Bill” has been championed by State Senator Lydia Chassaniol, a proud member of the overtly racist Council of Conservative Citizens. The legislation was approved by the Senate in 2009, but in the House, the bill was killed in committee by an African-American committee chairman. Senator Chassaniol is currently making a second attempt to get her Flowers bill passed.

When Curtis Flowers goes to trial in June, the situation in Winona will be unspeakably tense.

CAN YOU tell us about the civil rights record of the region where the Flowers case is taking place?

IN THE summer of 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer and several other civil rights activists were brutally beaten in the Montgomery County jail. The group was returning from a training session in nonviolent resistance and had exited the bus in Winona to use the restroom and grab a quick meal. Emboldened by their training, the African-American activists asked to be served at the all-white restaurant. They were immediately arrested, stuffed into police cars and booked into the local jail. Hamer was beaten with a blackjack by two African-American inmates under the supervision of Sheriff Earl Patridge, his deputies, and a Mississippi state trooper. The assault left Ms. Hamer half dead and she never fully recovered.

Most of the men and women associated with the Flowers prosecution (Judge Joseph Loper, District Attorney Doug Evans, investigator John Johnson, and Senator Lydia Chassaniol) were in junior high school when Fannie Lou Hamer and her friends were assaulted. In 1963, African Americans in Mississippi had no civil rights and no due process protections. Mississippi has seen a great deal of positive change since 1963, but not as much as most people think. Fannie Lou Hamer mesmerized the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City by recounting her experience in Winona. But Mississippi Democrats voted en masse for archconservative Republican Barry Goldwater.

In the Mississippi Delta, the struggle for civil rights was uniquely brutal and ultimately inconclusive. Neo-Confederate nostalgia and civil rights resentment are both strong in the rural regions of Mississippi, which explains why a politician like Lydia Chassaniol can openly embrace the Council of Conservative Citizens (a resurgence of the old White Citizens’ Councils) without raising eyebrows or paying a political price. In Montgomery County, this kind of talk wins elections. The prosecution of Curtis Flowers suggests that neo-Confederate nostalgia and civil rights resentment influence the criminal justice system as much as they shape the political landscape. Mississippi’s progress is most evident in urban areas like Jackson and educational enclaves like Oxford (the home of Ole Miss), but the continued influence of Old South values is still on display in the rural sections of the state. The relatively progressive rulings of the Mississippi Supreme Court are in sharp contrast to the legal realities in the Montgomery County Courthouse.

WHERE IS the case likely to go from here?

WHEN THE sixth trial begins in June, Winona residents on both sides of the racial divide will experience the same collective agony. For family and friends of the four murder victims, the repetition of gruesome details will rip open wounds that have never been allowed to heal. White Winona residents, with very few exceptions, will be praying for a unanimous guilty verdict that satisfies the state Supreme Court. Supporters of Curtis Flowers will be praying for another hung jury. The state will present essentially the same case it has laid out in five previous trials. Thirteen years have passed since the case was first tried in 1997 and several key witnesses are no longer living. The state’s witnesses know that if they recant their earlier testimony they will be charged with perjury. Both sides are steeling themselves for another near-miss for the prosecution and a continuation of an agonizing legal melodrama.

The Flowers bill currently being debated in the Mississippi Senate will probably pass, while the House version of the bill will likely be killed in committee once again. Even if the legislation is signed into law, it will almost certainly be declared unconstitutional because it violates a defendant’s right to a jury of his or her peers.

Friends of Justice is trying to break this judicial logjam by placing the Flowers story in its proper historical context. Until recently, the case had attracted little attention outside Mississippi but that is gradually changing. In December 2010, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) aired a radio documentary on the Flowers story that raised all the big questions Friends of Justice has placed on the table. We anticipate that as the trial date approaches the case will attract national media attention, if only because no capital defendant has ever faced the same charges six times.

But Friends of Justice is encouraging reporters and advocacy groups to move beyond the unprecedented aspects of this story. We are witnessing a wrongful prosecution in the making. The prosecution, we contend, is using a form of legal sleight of hand to transform a hopeless jumble of contradictory facts into a coherent narrative. By questioning the competency and objectivity of the state prosecutor and by taking the state’s evidentiary cards off the table one-by-one, we intend to derail a flawed and dangerous prosecution. In the process, we will draw parallels between the Flowers case and prosecutions like the Troy Davis case in Georgia and the Kelvin Kaigler case in Louisiana that follow the same dangerous pattern.

WHAT CAN be done to support Curtis Flowers?

THE FIRST step is to become educated about the case. The Friends of Justice Web site (www.friendsofjustice.net) has a separate Curtis Flowers section devoted exclusively to the facts and historical background. Stories appearing in the mainstream and alternative media will also appear in this section.

Secondly, we are planning a series of Common Peace Civil Rights tours through Montgomery County and the Mississippi Delta that will have life-changing impact. There will be opportunities on the Web site to sign up for this experience.

Finally, trial number six begins on June 7, 2010, and the presence of outside observers would be most welcome.

CAN YOU tell us about the recent work of Friends of Justice?

FRIENDS OF Justice has always tackled factually ambiguous cases where the prosecution’s narrative doesn’t fit the facts. Most advocacy groups shy away from actual legal cases in anticipation of the “But what if he’s guilty?” question. In recent years, actual innocence cases rooted in unassailable DNA evidence have gained nationwide attention. Unfortunately, less than 15 percent of criminal cases involve meaningful DNA evidence and the DNA in all but a few cold cases has already been tested.

Friends of Justice believes the time has come to demand that prosecutors prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt no matter how heinous the crime. Too many cases are marred by witness manipulation, junk science, and crude attempts to undermine the perceived character of defendants. For this reason, Friends of Justice is focusing on a string of cases in Texas and the South featuring similar fact patterns and dangerous prosecutorial tactics. In none of these cases can we prove actual innocence to a certainty, but we shouldn’t have to. When the state can win convictions without meeting its proper burden, innocent people go to prison. By focusing on cases with a high potential for wrongful conviction, Friends of Justice is drawing national attention to a serious problem that is rarely acknowledged.

Currently, we are monitoring a trial in Lafayette, Louisiana, in which several African-American defendants are being prosecuted in federal court largely on the basis of inmate snitch testimony. In an earlier case in the same court, Friends of Justice alleged that inmates were running perjury mills in the federal prison system with the purpose of cobbling together convincing, but completely manufactured, testimony. There is no parole in the federal system and inmates serving multi-decade sentences can earn generous time cuts by testifying against former associates.

At the same time, we will be investigating the case of Kelvin “Dreads” Kaigler, a young African-American resident of Slidell, Louisiana, who was recently convicted of murder on the sole testimony of a white drug dealer facing a life sentence. Essentially, the drug dealer was given a choice between sixty years without parole if he refused to implicate Kelvin, and seven years if he did.

While working on the Kaigler case, we were contacted by the mother of yet another young man who was recently prosecuted by the same court and in the same fashion. Ultimately, Friends of Justice will convince a skeptical public that wrongful conviction is a major problem that can be diagnosed, exposed, and eradicated.

Issue #85

September 2012

Election 2012

Who will serve the 1%?
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