Standards? We Don’t Need no Steenking Standards! Curtis Flowers trial, Day ten

(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.)

by Alan Bean, Friends of Justice

Day Ten of the Curtis Flowers trial concluded with a stunning proclamation: the State of Mississippi (like the rest of America) has no minimum standards for criminal investigations.

That’s right.  Law enforcement should adhere to accepted standards (wink, wink), but if they don’t, it’s okay.

Like the Mexican desperados in Blazing Saddles who “didn’t need no steenking badges”, the folks investigating the Tardy murders feel the rules don’t apply to them.   In fact, there are no rules.

John Johnson, the lead investigator for District Attorney Doug Evans, got started in law enforcement in 1972.  That’s just nine years after Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten half to death in Winona, MS.  Just six years after Grenada, MS was engulfed in daily riots over school segregation.  And just two years after southern schools finally integrated.  In other words, John Johnson was raised by old school standards.  The days of lynching, extra-judicial beatings and all-white juries may be over, but the authorities are still free to do their jobs any old way they choose. 

Mr. Johnson was virtually inaudible as he answered four hours of questions from lead defense attorney, Ray Carter.  (John was back to his old, confident self when Doug Evans was asking the questions.)

The reasoning of the state goes something like this: a proper investigation couldn’t convict Curtis Flowers, so we had to resort to a grossly improper investigation.  But we got the right guy so it doesn’t really matter.  Only a bleeding heart liberal would opt for an accountable investigation that failed to indict a suspect.  Proper standards are bad, you see, because they stand in the way of justice.

If you think that’s a crude overstatement, you weren’t in the courtroom today.

John Johnson freely admitted that he should have kept better records, should have filed reports, should have created clear lines of command, should have administered proper photo arrays and should have tape recorded crucial conversations.  But he nailed Curtis Flowers, so, no harm, no foul.

But could John Johnson have achieved the same result had he adhered to minimum investigatory standards (supposing any existed)?

Not a chance!  If John Johnson and company hadn’t cooked up a photo array designed to nail Curtis Flowers, Porky Collins wouldn’t have known which picture to select.  So they used generic mug shots of inmates who looked pretty much the same for the “filler” pictures and made Flowers’ face considerably bigger than the other faces.

Collins reported seeing two men in front of Tardy Furniture on the day of the murders, but investigators waited five weeks to administer the photo array so everyone in town would know who they were looking for.  When Porky expressed interest in the Flowers picture, someone said “Do you know Curtis Flowers?”

Then Porky knew sho’ ’nuff he had the right man.

There is only one way to do a worse photo line-up–don’t take any notes at all.

Generally, that was the approach John Johnson followed throughout a nine-month investigation.   If he interviewed a person who couldn’t help him, no record of the interview was kept.

Ray Carter kept repeating the old police mantra: “If there is no report, it didn’t happen.”  John Johnson would agree.  If he offered prospective witnesses $30,000 in exchange for their testimony (as several witnesses have reported) and they didn’t take the deal, the interview wasn’t documented.  On the other hand, on the rare occasion when the prospect took the deal, you eliminate the bribe from the record and record the good stuff.

Today, Kittery Jones, a local pastor, testified that John Johnson offered him $15,000 for his testimony (the carrot) while Doug Evans reminded him that obstructing justice was a felony.

Evans was incensed.  “I have never been present when you were interviewed, have I,” he roared.

“Yes” Kittery replied softly.

“And that’s as true as everything else you’ve said today,” Evans retorted.

“You were there,” Jones repeated.

“You’ve got a pretty good reason to lie,” Evans said.

Jones wasn’t the least bit intimidated by the prosecutor’s bluster.  “I wouldn’t lie on you,” he said; “and I wouldn’t lie for you.”

John Johnson admitted that no one person was in charge of the Tardy murder investigation, but saw that as a sign of cooperation between the DA’s office, the Winona PD, the Sheriff’s Office and the State Troopers.  Johnson was clearly uncomfortable when Ray Carter suggested that, after the first month or so, Johnson himself became the chief investigator.

The DA’s investigator freely admitted that, two hours after the bodies were discovered at Tardy Furniture, Curtis Flowers was the prime suspect and all other suspects had been eliminated.  Doyle Simpson wasn’t tested for gunshot residue because mangers at the Angelica plant told investigators that he was present and accounted for all day.  True to form, they had no record of having interviewed any particular manager or employee.  Moreover, Doyle Simpson has repeatedly testified that he left the building on three occasions the morning of the Tardy murders (apparently, no one noticed).

Poor record-keeping led inevitably to poor recall.  I was appalled at Johnson’s weak grasp of the facts.  He couldn’t remember the approximate date of any interviews and seems to have convinced himself that the bodies were discovered by Sam Jones around 10:00 o’clock (Jones says it was closer to 9:30).  The reason for this little oversight is obvious.  Porky Collins saw two men in front of Tardy’s shortly after 10:00 o’clock.  By Jones reckoning, he had run up the street to the Coast-to-Coast hardware store by that time.

Johnson repeatedly denied that he had mentioned reward money to any potential witnesses.  But since none of these conversations were recorded, how do we know?

Answer: Because we said it.

I would disagree with defense counsel on one critical point: this investigation did have a leader–Roxanne Ballard.

I’m not being critical of Ms. Ballard.  Her mother had just been brutally murdered.  She was in deep shock.  She found a check in Curtis Flowers’ name on her mother’s desk.  She remembered that batteries had been damaged and that Curtis hadn’t returned to work after the fourth of July weekend.

John Johnson reported that the Tom Tardy (Bertha’s elderly husband) and Roxanne Ballard suggested that Curtis Flowers was considered a threat.

There is no record of anyone discussing Curtis Flowers (or anything else) with Tom Tardy.  No one has ever explained why Mr. Tardy, a fixture at the store, didn’t show up on that fateful morning.  So we are left with Miss Roxanne.

Why did John Johnson take his marching orders from a grieving daughter of one of the murder victims?

For one thing, Roxanne was passionate.  She didn’t think Curtis might be the perpetrator; she knew he was the killer.  Ray Carter asked Johnson what reason Roxanne might have for seeing Curtis as a threat.  Were there any fights down at Tardy’s, he asked, any altercations?

No, Johnson admitted, there was no record of that sort of thing.

Had Flowers made any threatening remarks or gestures?

No.

So why was he regarded as a threat?

Because he had just killed four people, that’s why.  That’s the way Roxanne was thinking at the time.  Fourteen years later, she still thinks that way.  Now, she has the dubious fruit of a deeply flawed “investigation” to bolster her belief; then she had a check for eighty-two dollars and fifty-two cents plus nothing.

With a Master’s degree in accounting from Ole Miss and a Bachelors in sociology from Millsaps College, Roxanne Ballard is one of the most highly educated people in Winona.  She once worked for a prestigious accounting firm in Memphis.  She is sharp, articulate and businesslike.  John Johnson is a high school graduate with a few months of police academy training.  He is used to taking his marching orders from people like Ms. Ballard.

Roxanne Ballard wasn’t trying to take charge of the investigation; thanks to hapless dupes like John Johnson, that role fell to her by default.  No one wanted to cross Roxanne and the rest of the community most deeply affected by the community.  People wanted to give these people some justice, and that meant nailing the killer.  If Roxanne thought it was Curtis, everyone else was willing to go along.

Unfortunately, eye-witnesses were slow to materialize.  John Johnson is rather proud of the fact that he went door-to-door, holding up a picture of Curtis and flashing the handbill about the $30,000 reward.  Actually, he doesn’t admit to the picture and the handbill.  But plenty of witnesses, some of whom testified at trial, report getting the treatment from Mr. Johnson.  Since he didn’t record his conversations, we must choose whom to believe.

Why, you ask, am I being so hard on men like Johnson, Loper and Evans?  Because their cruel, self-satisfied incompetence has an innocent man on the brink of death row.

I have nothing personal against these men.  When Judge Loper enters the room, I stand.  I am critical of our criminal justice system, but there is also much to admire.  I appreciate the fact that Mr. Evans’ egregious blunders have been reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court (in Texas, he’d get away with far more).  I appreciate the fact that Ray Carter and Doug Evans, two men who clearly dislike one another, are able to labor side-by-side thanks to the rigid rules of the courtroom.

Virtually everything in this case hinges on whether you see John Johnson as a public-spirited truth-seeker or a cynical hack wielding threats and blandishments to shape testimony around a weak case.

Those who support Curtis go with the cynical hack option.  Johnson is a creature of Doug Evans.  Evans is enabled by a pro-prosecution judge.  That’s why I have trouble with these men.

If you don’t buy my analysis, the verdict is very different, of course.  If you think Curtis is guilty, there is a natural desire to celebrate the process that brought him to justice.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible for white folks to believe an investigator could bend the rules to get a conviction.  Of course, if there are no rules . . .

The day ended with a lengthy hearing designed to qualify R.L Johnson, the former African America police chief of Jackson, Michigan, Jackson, Mississippi, and Lancing Michigan, as an expert on homicide investigations.

Johnson is razor blade sharp; the kind of person capable of making subtle distinctions on the fly and reducing a boneheaded question to ashes.  He’s the guy who gave Ray Carter the “if there’s no report, it didn’t happen” line.

Not surprisingly, the state interpreted this old maxim as an assault on the integrity of police officers.  Since police officers never lie, the reasoning goes, why should they file reports?

Chief Johnson has been in the courtroom over the past few days watching the testimony unfold.  Like any sane observer, he is deeply troubled by what he sees.  There was clearly no one in change of this investigation; no big-picture person who was aware of all the information.  The documentation, to the extent there is any, is obscure.

The Chief has grave concerns about the integrity of the crime scene.  Until the forensic people (whose work he admires) showed up, no one was keeping track of who was going in and out of the crime scene, what they were doing, and what their responsibilities were.

He didn’t like “the early focus on one suspect to the exclusion of all else and all others.”

He wondered why no one had asked if it is possible for a single shooter to kill four people execution-style.

Surely, he says, a man who reports his gun stolen moments after a multiple homicide should remain a suspect longer than two hours.

Johnson was highly critical of the photo line-up used on Porky Collins.

Some of these flaws can be corrected, he said; others are way past the time when they can be fixed.

The state isn’t worried; they know Judge Loper will exclude Mr. Johnson when court resumes tomorrow at 9:00 am.

“You cannot empirically testify that this investigation led to the wrong result,” an assistant DA charged.

“I can say that the conclusions of an investigation with reports is likely to be more complete than those lacking reports,” Johnson countered.

And that’s the problem: fourteen years on, Johnson doesn’t believe the investigation in the Tardy murders is complete.

“You have no way to state reliably that this investigation (however flawed) would have worked out better had your ‘aspirational’ standards been followed,” the prosecutor charged.

“”You do a disservice to your case and the other side’s case,” Johnson fired back, “by not conducting an investigation properly.”

But is it true?  Did the other Mr. Johnson (the one who works for DA Evans) really do a disservice to his side’s case by throwing out the rule book?

When there are no rules, nothing is out of bounds, there are no disqualifications, and you can move the goalposts at will.  If you’re in-it-to-win-it, anarchy has its upside.

27 thoughts on “Standards? We Don’t Need no Steenking Standards! Curtis Flowers trial, Day ten

  1. Have you taken the time to interview Roxanne Ballard? You write as though you KNOW her. Roxanne was NO LEADER at the time of the murders. She was a grieving daughter. Did you know she was PREGNANT with her second son when the muders happened? Did you know that she had an awesome responsiblity just being able to COPE? YOU ARE HEARTLESS to speak of her this way and not even know her. Have you taken the time to try and get to know her? She is one of the most kind hearted people you could ever meet. YOU HAVE NO CLUE.

  2. It’s always right when Mr. Bean says it is. Why don’t you try telling the truth about all of this investigation??

  3. And what would “the truth” be? That everything was done by the book? Did you hear Mr. Johnson’s testimony yesterday? There is no way of knowing why the various witnesses keep coming back; but it is clear that two witnesses initially got involved for the wrong reasons and now realize they can’t back out without being charged with perjury.

  4. Of course Roxanne was a grieving daughter. My portrait is based on courtroom testimony and isn’t intended as an in-depth biography. Roxanne didn’t try to direct the investigation, but a rudderless operation clearly took its marching orders from the victims precisely because their grief was so overwhelming. The goal was to satisfy the families of the victims. Johnson admitted on the record that he made Curtis Flowers the prime suspect solely on Ms. Ballard’s word without a single incriminating fact to work from. He then spent the next nine months manufacturing incriminating facts out of thin air.

  5. Unfortunately, the truth may never be known because of the “lack of” investigation done in this case. I agree with former Chief Johnson, the investigation is not over because no one investigated “outside of the box”. Is Mr. Flowers innocent? I don’t know. But he should be until proven guilty with evidence supporting the allegations. The state has NOT proven this beyond a reasonable, sensible-man’s doubt. If you lied and do not correct your error now, God WILL have the last say so on your life.

  6. Blazing Saddles was a great movie, one of my favorite. I was surprised that you of all people would make a reference from it. Could you imagine the backlash of a lighthearted movie like that one if it were released today? It might come across a little racist huh? If this “isn’t intended as an in-depth biography” and is based on courtroom testimony, then why do you keep bringing up events from the civil rights movement in the ’60s?

  7. You forgot to mention that Kittery Jones is Curtis Flowers’ first cousin.
    When the facts of the case are against you, the only recourse you have is to bring up events from the past that have no bearing at all on this case in hopes of inflaming old wounds or mocking the people involved on the prosecution side. Strange how ALL the prosecution witnesses are “weak-minded” and on the “perjury train” while ALL defense witnesses are upstanding and honest with no ulterior motives.
    My guess is that the more you stir the racial pot, the more of those donations to your group roll in. I see that you accept Visa, Mastercard, etc.

  8. Yeah, FOJ accepts those credit cards through Pay Pal. Can we look forward to a generous donation from you?

  9. I would consider it if it would be used to purchase gas or airline tickets to take you all straight back to Texas.

  10. Thank you, Allan Bean this town for along time has been controllled by lies, from Fannie Lou Hamer, to the Curtis Flowers Trial……maybe the true will finally bring up and bring out the past about or law enforcement then, how they cover up lies and now how they continue? I’m for equal justice not for unequal justice…..if Curtis did this let’s prosecute him on facts, if he didn’t let’s not prosecute him on lies?

  11. Just by the comments that have been posted on this blog by people in the community, it is clear that a motion to transfer venue should have been granted 5 trials ago.

    I still want to hear more about the Gamble-Presley crime spree that was going on at the same time as these murders where people were killed execution-style! What was the pattern? What places did they hit? How were they caught? Honestly, coincidences like that don’t just happen.

  12. 30 minutes! I guess he may just be guilty. 6 trials to get justice and now we have it (not like we didn’t twice before). Time to move on to the next “wrongly accused” guity criminal. Please spend more time helping kids in lower socio-economic areas and less time trying to put murderers back on the streets. 30 minutes!

  13. This blog must be racist because there are no white people in any of the pictures at the top! Clayton Bigsby would not be a happy camper!

  14. WHEN WE ALL STAND BEFORE GOD THEN WE WILL SEE WHO WAS LYING AND WHO IS TELLING THE TRUTH A LOT OF YOU ARE GOING TO BE AMAZED HOW MANY LIES HAVE BEEN TOLD BY THIS SO CALLED DA AND HIS FLUNKIES.THINKING THEY ARE GOING TO GAIN A FEW BUCKS AND LOOSE THEIR SOUL WRITE IT ON THE CALENDER OF YOUR MIND BECAUSE IT’S GOING TO HAPPEN

  15. The truth has been told Mr. Bean, you just haven’t been listening. I forgot, didn’t you say you were from Canada or where? Maybe you don’t understand our language. Curtis Flowers was found GUILTY TODAY,JUNE 18,2010. DID YOU GET THAT???????

  16. You did not answer the question I asked first in my comment. Did you take the time to interview Roxanne Ballard?

  17. Right, if they want out, they can do the right thing and get out!! The truth is the truth!!! A lie is a lie, simple as that.

  18. What I think everyone should do now PEOPLE, Is get off of this BLOGGGGGGGG………………… and stay off, because I think we are giving MR.BEANNNNNNNNN exaclty what HE WANTS!!!!!!!!

    You have a good day MR. Bean!!

  19. TRUST ME IT WILL BE ROLLED BACK TO THEM ON THAT GREAT DAY. PEOPLE BETTA BE GETTIN THERE SOULS SAVED. BECAUSE THE DEATH THEY PLAN FOR SOMEONE ELSE JUST MAY B THERE ON. WOW

    THERE IS SOOOO MUCH HATRED HERE IN THIS TOWN. PEOPLE REALIZE GOD SAID IF U CANT FORGIVE HE CANT FORGIVE U. SO ON ALLLL SIDES LEARN TO FORGIVE. GOD SAID I COME TO GIVE LIFE AND IT MORE ABUNDANTLY.

  20. I totally agree. Mr. Bean helped to bring out the REAL facts about a “cover-up” city. But one thing is for sure: EVERYONE that lied or convinced/coerced others to lie will be prosecuted by a defense and prosecutor that has ALL powers in his hand. People of Winona, find a way of to fend for yourself. You/nor your family do not have to be subjected to uncontrollable racism. If you really have a desire to live as you should , pray for God’s support and tell Winona racists to “be gone” form your life.

    Curtis FLowers was found guilty but, still, the evidence was not sufficient.

  21. Anna: when five black jurors held out for an acquittal in trial four I had never heard of Curtis Flowers. Winona was divided long before I arrived on the scene; I’m just trying to account for the division.

    Alan Bean

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