(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.)
Nationally, only 40% of African Americans support the death penalty, compared to 68% of whites. In Mississippi the racial divide is even greater: only 25% of black adults in Mississippi favor capital punishment compared with over 70% of white adults.
When you understand the history of lynching in the South this discrepancy isn’t surprising, but it works to the disadvantage of black defendants like Curtis Flowers. Curtis is currently on trial for the sixth time on the same evidence—the first time that has happened in the history of American jurisprudence. Today, fifteen black jurors were asked if they could consider the death penalty in the event that Curtis is convicted; six said they could and nine said they could not.
In these United States, opponents of capital punishment are excluded from juries if the prosecution is asking for the death penalty.
Black jurors were also far more likely to admit that they had a fixed opinion on the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Were black jurors sincere in their answers, or were they simply frightened by the prospect of serving on a majority white jury? I don’t know. Perhaps they don’t know themselves.
James Bibbs, the retired school teacher who hung the jury in trial five, was prosecuted for perjury. Fortunately, attorney Rob McDuff was able to get both Loper and DA Doug Evans recused from the case, but the message got through to Winona’s black community.
Today, as if to drive home the point, Mr. Evans accused a black juror of lying about how often she sees Curtis Flowers’ sister at work. The juror reported that she works at the opposite end of the assembly line and rarely speaks to the defendant’s sister. Evans brought in a white woman who works at the plant to testify that the two women work nine inches apart.
Message: another black person is lying to get on the jury.
Ironically, the juror in question had already eliminated herself from contention by stating her opposition to the death penalty.
Later today, I called up Charita Flowers and asked her who had it right. The woman Evans dragged into the courtroom, Charita told me, works in another part of the building and rarely observes the work arrangement on the line. “Most of the time we [Charita and the juror] are at opposite ends of the line,” she explained, “but every once in a while we will be standing right next to each other, so both sides are telling a part of the truth.”
A trivial point in a trial of such moment, I know. But Evans was making a not-so-subtle point. Any black person who ends up on this jury can expect to be accused of perjury.
For the past two days, jurors have been entering the courtroom alone to be asked if they could consider the death penalty as a “punishment option”, if they could leave everything they had heard about the Tardy murders at the courtroom door, and if they could be fair and impartial.
A solid majority of white jurors have been giving the right answers. They all know practically nothing about the Tardy murders, they can consider either capital punishment of life without parole in the case of a conviction, and they can be completely fair and impartial.
Again, it’s hard to know if these people believe their own statements. A relative of sheriff Earl Wayne Patridge (the man who had Fannie Lou Hamer beaten half to death in 1963) swore up and down that even though he goes to church with Benny Rigby (husband of murder victim Carmen Rigby) he could be entirely fair and objective.
He was followed by the best friend of the slain baseball standout Bobo Stewart. He too could give Curtis Flowers a fair shake.
Then came an old friend of Carmen Rigby who got teary-eyed on the witness stand whenever the vicious crimes of 1996 were mentioned. She too swore that she could be fair to every last person on earth . . . even Curtis Flowers.
Some of these claims strained the credulity of even Judge Loper (Loperland, it seems, has its limits). He agreed that Bobo Stewart’s best friend and the woman who got emotional on the stand, though undoubtedly well-intentioned, would probably have a hard time seeing past their grief and loyalty aside.
But the rest of the folks giving what I started calling “white answers” to the judge’s questions were left on the jury. Defense counsel can use their peremptory strikes on them if they choose, but there are dozens and dozens of these people—you can’t strike them all.
African American jurors, on the other hand, are becoming a rare breed. Eight black jurors and only two white juror eliminated themselves from consideration by claiming that they couldn’t sit in judgment under any circumstances. Nine black jurors and only two white jurors disqualified themselves on the death penalty question. Four black jurors and only one white juror admitted that they have a fixed opinion on the guilt or innocence of Curtis Flowers too strong to be altered.
Plenty of white jurors (mostly men) freely admitted to having an opinion on the guilt-innocence question (just guess what that opinion might be). But they all smiled sweet Southern smiles and promised that they could set those opinions aside and just consider the evidence presented in the courtroom. If they said it, Doug Evans was prepared to believe them.
Are white jurors trying to get on the jury so they can send Curtis Flowers to death row?
Some undoubtedly are. They have adapted to the rules of Loperland. So long as they say the magic words they are in (it’s a lot like getting saved at revival time).
But a lot of these people are completely sincere. They truly believe that Curtis Flowers murdered Bertha Tardy, Carmen Rigby, Robert Golden and Bobo Stewart in cold blood because $82 had been deducted from his pay check. They also believe that they can wipe this belief (and the bitterness it naturally inspires) from their minds if the judge tells them to.
You can’t help but like these people–many of them are delightful–but this is madness. In the wrong hands, the legal system takes on a perverse Alice-in-Wonderland quality. And believe me, folks, the legal system in Montgomery County is in the wrong hands.
If you’re the praying kind, please say a prayer for Curtis Flowers and his family.
If you’re not the praying kind, swallow your pride and say a prayer anyway. The situation is that desperate.