Tunnel vision on trial: an innocent Mississippi man gets his day in court

Sheri Lynn Johnson

Since 1997, the state of Mississippi has put Curtis Flowers on trial six times for the same crime.  But they have never been able to lay this case to rest.  Either the jury deadlocks along racial lines, or the state overturns the conviction on the basis of flagrant racial bias.  On Monday, July 21 at 1:30 pm, Sheri Lynn Johnson, the Assistant Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, will be making oral arguments on behalf of Mr. Flowers and you can watch the proceedings live.

You can find the hearing by clicking here.  The feed will likely go “live” about 5 minutes before the 1:30 scheduled start at the Mississippi Supreme Court.

If you can’t watch live, you can find the text version of Professor Johnson’s beautifully crafted appeal here.

The text of Flower’s appeal quickly zeroes in on the salient issue: “Flowers’ sixth trial bore the essential hallmarks of the three proceedings whose outcomes were previously reversed by this Court: weak and unreliable evidence of guilt, and prosecutorial misconduct undertaken to overcome that weakness.”

We are dealing with a case of prosecutorial tunnel vision bathed in racial bias. Shortly after 9 am on July 16th, 1996, four people were found brutally murdered, each with a bullet to the back of the head, in a furniture store in Winona. Three hours later, investigators had ruled out the man tied to the alleged murder weapon and, without a shred of evidence, credible or otherwise, made Curtis Flowers their sole suspect.

Flowers became the focus of the investigation, curiously, because a check in his name was found on the desk of the slain store manager, Bertha Tardy.  Bertha’s daughter, still disoriented by shock and the initial wave of grief, took one look at the check and concluded that Curtis was the gunman.  Flowers had worked for Bertha Tardy for less than a week and never returned after the 4th of July weekend.  After being absent for work for several days, his mother insisted that Curtis call in to see if he still had a job.  He didn’t.

Curtis Flowers at trial
Curtis Flowers at trial

Prosecutors allege that Flowers was so angry over being fired that he stole Doyle Simpson’s gun and murdered four people in cold blood.  It isn’t hard to see why Bertha Tardy would have been angry with her irresponsible ex-employee; but no one has ever explained why Curtis would feel slighted when, as he freely admits, he had committed such an obvious firing offense.

Nor has anyone explained how Curtis could have known a gun was waiting in the glove box of Doyle Simpson’s car. The weapon normally slept under Simpson’s pillow and Simpson admitted that he hadn’t informed Flowers, or anyone else, of the weapon’s whereabouts.

Doyle Simpson had no clear motive for snuffing out four innocent lives either.  But a decade before the murders in Winona, Doyle had been shot by a hit man with the New Orleans mob and left for dead.  For some reason, Simpson, a part-time janitor at a Winona clothing factory, spent the latter part of the morning informing everyone he met that his weapon had been stolen.  This suggests that he was keen to distance himself from the weapon.  We don’t know what he knew about the crime; but he knew something.

Why would such an obvious suspect be completely ignored by investigators?  The only credible explanation is that they had their a theory of the crime and intended to create testimony around that theory.  It didn’t matter who went down for the crime, so long as he had no influential relatives.  Curtis Flowers was as good a fall-guy as any, and better than most–at least he had some connection to the crime scene.

One thing was certain, the Tardy murders (as they came to be called) could not become a cold case. The good people of Winona needed a killer, and prosecutor Doug Evans was determined to give them one.

Curtis wasn’t arrested for a full half year.  That’s how long it took investigators to go door to door, flashing an ad offering $30,000 for information leading to a conviction, and asking residents if they had seen Curtis Flowers (they even had a picture).

To make this happen, they first had to place their unwavering trust in Patricia Hallmon, a tragically flawed witness who lived in the duplex next to Flowers.  Patrica insisted she had seen Curtis leave home on the morning in question just in time to steal Simpson’s gun.  He then returned home and headed out again just in time to commit a quadruple homicide.

When Hallmon’s brother told investigators that he and Patricia had cooked up this story so they could get their hands on the reward money no one believed him.  Years later, Patricia Hallmon (now known as Patricia Sullivan) was convicted of income tax fraud and sent off to federal prison.  This federal case against her was kept from public knowledge until trial number six was history.

Hallmon’s timeline was reinforced by the testimony of Catherine Snow, an intimate acquaintance of Doyle Simpson who worked at the same factory.  She told police that she saw a young man leaning up against Doyle’s car the morning of the mass killing.

Unfortunately, Snow’s initial description didn’t fit Curtis Flowers at all.  At trial, she explained that the police kept bringing her back in for questioning–an experience that scared her half to death–and that she eventually “remembered” that Curtis had been the man by the car.  Since Catherine Snow was well acquainted with Curtis (they were both active on the gospel circuit), her initial inability to identify him is more than puzzling.

Working from the testimony of two hopelessly compromised witnesses, investigators used a combination of fear and greed to scrape up a handful of witnesses who “remembered” seeing Curtis walking to and from the murder site.  Once these unfortunate people had signed their name to a witness statement they were threatened with perjury indictments if they backed away from their stories.

That’s how you convict a man without an iota of genuine evidence.  Investigators could have built a similar case against dozens of young black males from Winona (and possibly one or two young white males) using a similar tactic.

Prosecutors have had a difficult time selling this story to Black jurors, of course, which explains why three convictions have been reversed on the grounds of racial bias.  In a town that is 45% African America, it takes ingenuity to pick an all-white jury.

Those are some of the highlights of the case.  If you want to learn more, you can go to our Curtis Flowers page (where you will find several dozen blog posts dedicated to this case), you can read Paul Alexander’s terrific piece in Rolling Stone, or you can check out Sheri Lynn Johnson’s devastating appeal.

And you will want to be watching when Professor Johnson puts tunnel vision on trial before the Mississippi Supreme Court on Monday at 1:30.


One thought on “Tunnel vision on trial: an innocent Mississippi man gets his day in court

Comments are closed.