CNN covers the Curtis Flowers trial

(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.)

CNN’s Emanuella Grinberg has written an excellent primer on the case of Curtis Flowers on the verge of his sixth trial.  Five out-of-town observers have already arrived in Winona and more are on the way.  For your convenience, I have pasted the story below, but I urge you to go to the CNN website and add your comment to the unfolding discussion.  While it is impossible to touch on all the jaw-dropping aspects of this story, Ms. Grinberg has clearly done her homework and has unpacked most of the big issues.

More on the Flowers case can be found here.

Mississippi man faces sixth capital murder trial in 1996 shootings

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

Curtis Flowers is accused of shooting and killing former employer, 3 others in 1996

Three convictions reversed due to prosecutorial misconduct, racial bias in jury selection

Two more trials ended in hung juries that split along racial lines

Montgomery County District Attorney says evidence is there to convict Flowers

CNN) — Curtis Flowers has stood before five juries in the past 13 years on capital murder charges, accused of killing four people in a Mississippi furniture store.

This week, prosecutors are hoping his sixth trial will be the last.

Flowers, 40, is believed to be the only person in recent U.S. history to be tried six times on the same capital murder charges.

Bertha Tardy, the owner of Tardy’s Furniture in downtown Winona, and three employees were shot execution-style in the head the morning of July 16, 1996, inside the store, court records say.

The shootings rattled the sleepy central Mississippi town, with a population of about 5,500 that has declined in the 14 years since then. Like most of the businesses still operating in downtown Winona, Tardy’s was a relic of another era, having opened its doors in the 1940s. Bertha Tardy and her husband were prominent members of the community, and nearly everyone in Winona could claim some connection to the victims.

After months of interviews and a $30,000 reward for information, Flowers was arrested in January 1997 on four counts of capital murder. He has been in custody ever since.

Flowers has been convicted three times and sentenced to death twice, but the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed those verdicts and ordered a new trial each time. His two most recent trials ended in hung juries, leading his supporters to question why the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office continues to seek a conviction.

The prosecution’s case is based largely on circumstantial evidence. There is no DNA, the alleged murder weapon has not been found and eyewitnesses who say they saw Flowers the day of the shooting have provided conflicting accounts.

Still, Montgomery County District Attorney Doug Evans says it’s a straightforward case of a disgruntled worker taking out his anger against his former employer.

Others, who believe Flowers is innocent, say the case has turned into a crusade and suggest that race has played a major role in the prosecution and convictions of Flowers.

“The fact they’re trying this case for the sixth time suggests to me there’s some racial motivation here, because there’s no way in the world I can see a white guy accused of doing the same thing being tried six times to procure a conviction,” said Jackson City Councilman Chokwe Lumumba, who represented Flowers in his second trial in 1999.

Flowers’ supporters say it is a classic example of a case built upon weak circumstantial evidence and shaky eyewitness testimony intended to blame an easy target: a poor black man.

“What does it say about the prosecution that they have chosen to ignore two jury verdicts?” said Alan Bean, executive director of Friends of Justice, a nonprofit organization that monitors due process violations in the criminal justice system.

“I really think the only way to save Winona from this nightmare is to force the Montgomery County district attorney to step aside and appoint the attorney general’s office. If you did that, I am convinced you wouldn’t see the prosecution of Curtis Flowers, because the evidence just isn’t there.”

To Evans, though, Flowers’ prosecution is about seeking justice for the victims and bringing closure to the community.

“Any time that we feel there is evidence to prove a case, we’re going to pursue it,” said Evans, who tried the five previous cases and will lead the prosecution this time.

Evans declined to elaborate on lessons learned from the previous trials or to say if his strategy will be different this time around, but he said the two hung juries did not affect his decision to try Flowers again.

“Any case that’s on the docket I want to try and dispose of it,” he said.

Evans and Flowers’ current lawyer, Ray Carter, said they expected much of the evidence to be the same this go-round as it has been in previous trials.

In all five trials, Sam Jones, an employee of Tardy’s since it opened in 1942, testified that Bertha Tardy called him around 9 a.m. on July 16 about coming in to train two new employees. When Jones arrived at the store around 9:30 a.m., he discovered the bodies of Tardy, bookkeeper Carmen Rigby and Robert Golden lying near the counter in pools of blood. Nearby, Jones saw 16-year-old Derrick “Bobo” Stewart on the floor, blood pouring from his head with each labored breath. He died a week later.

Prosecutors allege that Flowers, a former employee, stole a gun from his uncle’s car and shot Tardy because she had fired him two weeks before the killings and docked his pay for damaging a pair of batteries. He allegedly shot the others to eliminate witnesses, and then took money from the cash register, which elevated the offense to capital murder and made him eligible for the death penalty.

The .380-caliber pistol used in the shootings has not been found, but investigators matched bullets at the scene to shell casings from the gun owned by Flowers’ uncle, which has also not been recovered. Another witness who came forward months after the shooting and said she saw Flowers “leaning” on his uncle’s car around 7:15 a.m. the day of shootings. The same day, his uncle, Doyle Simpson, reported that a gun had been stolen from his car.

A neighbor said she saw Flowers around 7:30 a.m. outside his home wearing Fila sneakers. Another witness testified that he saw two men standing across the street from Tardy’s around 10 a.m., and that one of them was Flowers. Another woman said she saw Flowers running out of the store the morning of the shootings while she was driving toward the store with a friend.

A trace analyst expert determined that a bloody footprint at the scene came from a size 10.5 Grant Hill Fila sneaker; investigators found a shoebox for a 10.5 Grant Hill Fila at the home where Flowers lived with his girlfriend, but found no sneakers.

The three different teams of lawyers to represent Flowers have argued that witnesses who said they saw him that morning came forward with shaky stories months after the shootings, enticed by a $30,000 reward. They also said prosecutors failed to conclusively link Flowers to the weapon or the crime scene through the bloody footprint, and questioned whether the evidence proved that money was taken from the cash register.

“The reward offer really poisoned the case by giving rise to fabricated eyewitness testimony,” said defense lawyer Lumumba. “I don’t think the witnesses recognized the consequences of what they were doing, that they were going to help put this man to death.”

In Flowers’ second through fifth trials, the defense called witnesses to dispute eyewitness accounts of the woman who said she saw Flowers running out of the store.

Prosecutors at first attempted to try Flowers separately for each murder, but the first two convictions were reversed after the Mississippi Supreme Court found that evidence of the other deaths was improperly introduced. The court found that prosecutors used excessive displays of crime scene photos and testimony regarding the nature of the other deaths.

“By using this tactic or trial strategy, the state improperly prejudiced the jury and denied Flowers his fundamental right to a fair trial,” the justices wrote in two nearly identical opinions issued in 2000 and 2003.

The third trial in 2004 also ended in a conviction that was later reversed after the state Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors dismissed black jurors based on race, fueling allegations of racial bias against the district attorney’s office.

In the case of one black female whom the prosecution voted to dismiss because of her attitude toward the death penalty, the court noted that her views “were nearly indistinguishable from those of two white jurors who ultimately served on the jury, suggesting disparate treatment.”

The next two trials — Flowers 4 and 5, as they are called by the lawyers who tried them — ended in hung juries after the panelists failed to reach a unanimous decision. The first jury was split along racial lines, with five black jurors voting to acquit and seven white jurors choosing to convict. The lone black juror on the panel in the fifth trial, who voted to acquit Flowers, was charged with perjury, but the charges were ultimately dismissed.

Flowers’ supporters say the first three convictions and the racial divides in the last two trials can be attributed to the racist attitudes that still prevail in Mississippi, especially when a low-income black person is accused of killing a prominent white member of the community. Tardy and two of the other victims were white; the fourth victim was black.

“I’m not accusing white jurors of overt racial prejudice — maybe some racial insensitivity — but I think the real problem is they don’t have enough social knowledge to evaluate the credibility of testimony and I think black jurors do, and that’s what disturbs me about this tendency to eliminate black jurors and to disregard the black jurors’ verdicts,” said Bean.

There will be a few differences in the sixth trial. Among them, the absence of two jailhouse informants from Flowers 1, who testified that the defendant admitted to the shootings. The two later admitted to lying under promises of monetary reward from law enforcement, according to Lumumba.

Another difference involves the testimony of Charles “Porky” Collins, the man who said he saw Flowers across the street from the store around 10 a.m. with another man. It will be read to the jury, because Collins is dead.

Bean, who plans to observe the trial, said he is especially looking forward to the jury selection phase, in which prospective jurors are questioned on their beliefs.

“The racial dynamics are right there on the surface. There’s no pretense of equal justice, so I’m hoping this story can be instructive in that regard, whatever the outcome may be.”

11 thoughts on “CNN covers the Curtis Flowers trial

  1. I have been following the trials of Curtis Flowers for some time, thanks to the posted information from Alan Bean. One must be blind–unlike the justice rendered in this man’s ordeal–to realize Curtis Flowers is not responsible for the murders of the hapless victim.

  2. Who are you to make judgment on this? Were you there for some or all of the trials? I was there for part of two and all of this sixth one so for. Evidence so far seems to be guilt for Curtis Flowers. Let’s not let media decide for us.

  3. The CNN article failed to tell a lot and misleading on some paragraphs. Here is one example: In paragraph beginning with “The .380 caliber pistol…” CNN mentioned the witness who came forward months after the shooting. This lady was questioned the day or next day after the murders but was afraid for her family per her testimony. She knew Curtis Flowers was probably the one who did the murders. She did not identify him until law enforcement asked her to identify the man she saw by his uncle’s car from a picture lineup months later. Then she identified him. I understand it is hard to get everything correct in an article, but it can mislead public opinion. This is just one example.

  4. All I’ve got to say is this….. Curtis Flowers got fired from his job at Tardy Furniture by the owner (Mrs. Bertha Tardy). Weeks later, Mrs. Bertha Tardy and all three of her employees got murdered. Why didn’t the murders take place before Curtis Flowers got fired??? Why didn’t the hitman (as the black people think did these murders) kill these people before Curtis Flowers got fired and why did a gun get stolen the same day of the murders????? Can you answer these questions??? It is strange that Curtis Flowers got fired, then these people he worked with got murdered!!!! Strange……. isn’t it??????

  5. Shirley:
    The state asserts that Curtis Flowers was fired from his job at Tardy furniture but they are unable to document that claim. I have spoken to several people in the black community, including Lola Flowers, who tell me that Bertha Tardy wanted Curtis to return to work and made several phone calls in that regard. Curtis was slow to respond, and by the time he did, the job had been given to others. While it is true that the battery incident dampened Curtis’ enthusiasm for the job, he was looking for better pay and eventually moved to the Dallas area to find it. Bertha Tardy gave Curtis $30 at the end of the last day he worked at Tardy’s. That hardly indicates ill will. Curtis tells me that, although he didn’t know Bobo Stewart, he had a good relationship with Robert Golden, a good working relationship with Ms. Tardy, and a particular affection for Carmen Rigby. Of course, it could be argued that he is lying through his teeth, but I’m convinced he was telling the truth. I have been able to corroborate the good relationship with Mr. Golden. The last exchange Curtis and Bertha Tardy had was when she made him the $30 advance. Curtis had zero motive for doing the crime and I can’t imagine a person in Winona, black or white, who did.

  6. Do you really think Flowers moved to the Dallas area to find a better paying job? Or was it because he had killed four people and got the heck out of town ASAP?
    Perhaps Alan should speak with all parties involved in this mess, rather than taking Curtis’ word for everything. He only worked at the store for three days. Obviously the working relationship with Mrs. Tardy couldn’t have been too good or he would not have been fired. He may have felt a “particular affection” for Carmen Rigby, but in the days after he was was fired (and he WAS fired) Carmen told several people that she was glad he was gone because she was afraid of him.
    Most people in this community knew about his juvenile record. This is not the first time he has shot someone. This can’t be brought up in court, but Curtis is not the innocent choirboy he is being portrayed as.

  7. Did Carmen Rigby really say that, or is it one of a thousand myths generated by this story? Curtis Flowers is not the kind of people folks are afraid of. Ask anyone in the black community about that. If Curtis was fired, why did Bertha repeatedly call his mother’s home asking to speak to him? Eventually, he was released and replacements were hired because he didn’t make contact. Clearly, the job at Tardys was not for him and he handled the separation in an irresponsible fashion. But that is light years away from a motive for murder. As for the high school incident, it was investigated and declared an accident by the local authorities. There is good reason why the incident, almost a decade in the past as of the first trial, isn’t admissible. It might as well be, however, since everybody in Winona knows about it.

  8. Ask Benny Rigby what Carmen said. Ask Roxanne Ballard if he were really fired. Talk to the mother of the boy who was shot in high school. See if they think he is the kind of person you should be afraid of. Get both sides of the story before you put out your opinion as fact. You have neglected to even speak to the victims families and investigate the other side of the story.

  9. My wife Carmen Rigby was scared of Curtis Flowers from day one. And yes, Curtis was fired because he did not show up for work for days. So Bean, thete’s a lot of things you don’t know, If your son was being tried for 4 murders, you also might lie for him!
    Your running your mouth off about things you know nothing about! You want people to believe this is a racial matter so that the african american’s will continue donating to your fund that allows you to drive new cars and live an elaborate life style!

  10. Where were the husband that time of the morning, or where were his kids,look deeper before

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