A House Divided

(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.)

IMG_1018-1 In fairness, Senator Chassaniol isn’t the only fan of the Council of Concervative Citizens in the Mississippi Legislature.  Bobby Howell, the Republican State Representative from Kilmichael (another small town in Montgomery County) also has close ties with the organization.   Long after Lott and Barr retreated from the group, Bobby Howell was happily speaking at their conferences and attending the annual Blackhawk event supporting segregated private schools (Blackhawkis just down the road from both Winona and Kilmichael).

Senator Chassaniol and Representative Howell did the heavy lifting for a bill that was created to break a legal logjam in Montgomery County.   On July 16, 1996, between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m, four people were gunned down execution-style in Winona’s Tardy furniture store: Bertha Tardy, 59, and three employees, Carmen Rigby, 45, Derrick “Bobo” Stewart, 16, and Robert Golden, 42.

Six months elapsed with no arrest and local residents were growing restive.  Then the police arrested a suspect.  The theory was that Curtis Flowers, a young man who had worked less than a week for Bertha Tardy, was so upset that $82 had been deducted from his paycheck (to cover damaged merchandise) that he was driven to the most heinous crime in the history of Montgomery County.

The case against Curtis Flowers is paper thin.  There is no murder weapon, no DNA, no fingerprints and no one witnessed the crime. Flowers, a model prisoner, has always maintained his innocence.   All the prosecution can muster is some weak physical evidence and reams of ambiguous testimony.   Credible witnesses don’t implicate Flowers and the folks who say they saw the prime suspect in the vicinity of the

furniture store are singularly unconvincing.  But the State’s has been enough to convince white jurors.

IMG_1004-1Whoever pulled the trigger in the Tardy Furniture store is a monster.  Curtis Flowers is either guilty as charged or he is an innocent victim of wrongful prosecution.  White folks have no doubt that Curtis is the gunman.  Black folks, for the most part, are unconvinced.  Curtis Flowers earned a reputation as a goodnatured, fun-loving gospel singer.  Those who know him best doubt he could pull off a premeditated murder even if he wanted to–and they can’t imagine him wanting to.  Not Curtis.

The State’s case against Flowers can be compared to Colin Powell’s presentation at the United Nations.  None of the evidence is particularly convincing, but there’s lots of it.  Americans living in the emotional wake of 9-11 were desperate for justice.  We wanted to be convinced that our true enemy could be identified, crushed on the field of battle and brought to justice.  In retrospect, Powell’s “evidence” looks silly; but it was enough to convince a public desperate to believe.

The same can be said of the case against Curtis Flowers.  Reading through back issues of the Winona Times you encounter the implied argument that Flowers must be guilty because the crime was really, really awful.  The thought that we may never know who to blame for “the Tardy murders” is simply unacceptable.

The first two Tardy trials ended with convictions and death sentences.  But the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed both convictions due to prosecutorial misconduct.  A third conviction was reversed when defense counsel was able to show that District Attorney Doug Evans was illegally keeping black residents off the jury.

The fourth trial came as a dreadful shock to the white community: five black jurors returned not guilty verdicts while seven white jurors voted to convict.  The town, it seemed, was utterly divided along racial lines.

Hopes were high during the fifth trial (held in September of 2008) that a breakthrough was IMG_1026possible.  There were three black people on the jury, but one was a businessman who wrote a column in the Winona Times and maintained good relations with the white community, one had a background in law enforcement and the third was a retired school teacher.  None of the three was close to the Flower family.

It almost worked.  Post-trial interviews suggest that two of the black jurors were willing to convict if the white jurors would agree to a life sentence.  But James Bibbs, the retired school teacher, wasn’t having it.  He didn’t think the State had proved its case and he refused to budge.

At the close of trial, James Bibbs was called into the courtroom and harangued by Judge Joseph (“Joey”) Loper.  To hear the judge tell it, Bibbs had lied his way onto the jury with the express purpose of hanging the jury.  He had raised his hand in open court and sworn that he could be impartial when, in truth, his mind was made up from the beginning.

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Furthermore, Loper said, Bibbs had told other jurors that he had spent the day of the murders visiting with friends at a lawnmower shop behind the Tardy Furniture store.  During trial, police officers testified that they had canvassed the neighborhood the day of the crime.  Bibbs allegedly told his fellow jurors that if that he didn’t see any officers in the area.

According to Loper and DA Doug Evans, Bibbs perjured himself when he claimed during voir dire that he had no special knowledge about the case other than what he had gleaned from media reports.

Ray Carter, Curtis Flowers’ lead attorney, was so incensed by the judge’s verbal assault that he attempted to leave the courtroom.  Carter feared he might say something he would regret.  Judge Loper instructed the baillif to restrain Carter.  The defense attorney was dragged back to the front of the courtroom while the Judge continued his rant.

When it was over, James Bibbs was escorted from the courtroom in handcuffs.  (An alternate on the jury was charged with perjury when evidence emerged suggesting that she had visited Curtis Flowers in prison and talked to him on the phone.  The evidence in this case appears to be solid).

According to Lydia Chassaniol, the indictment of James Bibbs proves that the jury pool in Montgomery County is hopelessly tainted. “We’re looking for some remedy,” Chassaniol told reporters. “At the last (Flowers) trial, two jurors were indicted for perjury. Now, does that sound like a tainted jury pool?”

The Senator assured the Associated Press that “It just has to be awful for the families of the victims.  Each time a trial is held, they have to relive the horror of loved ones being murdered. But I would think that the defendant’s family would want some relief, too. It’s got to be just as hard on them.”

Mississippi residents have a constitutional right to be tried in their home county.  Defense counsel can request a change of venue; the State cannot.  According to the bill Chassaniol crafted, in capital cases that have gone to trial over three times, district attorneys would be allowed to pick a jury from the judicial district instead of the county.  In Mississippi history, only the Flowers case meets this standard.

If the bill had passed, DA Evans would have been able to pick a jury from a district that bumps up against Morgan Freeman’s hometown of Charleston to the Northwest and Neshoba County (of Mississippi Burning fame) to the southeast.  A great place to pick an all-white jury sure to bring closure to the Flowers case and an end to Winona’s heartache.

Chassaniol’s bill passed the Senate without great difficulty.  But the House version sponsored by Bobby Howell was killed by black Democratic judiciary chair Edward Blackmon.

That means a sixth trial for Curtis Flowers (the date hasn’t been set) and another year of racial polarization.

Winona’s white community don’t understand why black jurors can’t see the strength of the State’s case against  Flowers.  From the white side of the street it all looks so simple.  But when you see politicians like Lydia Chassanioland Bobby Howell consorting with the Council of Conservative Citizens the objectivity issue appears in a different light.

James Bibbs goes to trial in Yazoo, Mississippi on July 28th.  Friends of Justice will be there.  In my next post I will consider the Bibbs case from the perspective of defense attorney Rob McDuff.

This is the second in a series of posts about the tragedy that has divided a Mississippi town.  Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.