On July 30th, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) held hearings on Capitol Hill entitled “A Conversation on Race and Justice in America” in response to the intense national debate that has resulted from the killing of Trayvon Martin. Racial profiling – “a secret hiding in public,” according to panelist Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center – was discussed, as were Stand Your Ground laws. Less attention was paid to the perilous way the legal system treats some African-Americans who end up in it, especially those with neither the money nor the means to defend themselves.
Consider Curtis Flowers. Today, he sits on Mississippi’s death row, where he has been for 16 years. Tried six times on the same murder charges – the only known person in American history to endure that fate – he has never hedged in proclaiming his innocence, even refusing plea bargains. “I’m not going to say I killed someone when I didn’t,” he said in 2010. “I would rather be executed and go to Heaven and know I did the right thing than to be in this world if I have to admit to something I didn’t do.”
Flowers’ ordeal began in July 1996 on the morning Bertha Tardy and three of her employees were killed execution-style in her furniture store in Winona, Mississippi. They were shot with such precision that it took only five bullets to kill four people. Two weeks earlier, Flowers worked for Tardy for about three days. He said he quit; others said he was fired. Regardless, Doug Evans, the local district attorney, zeroed in on Flowers as a disgruntled employee and made him the prime suspect. (more…)
Doug Evans investigation and prosecution of the infamous 1996 Tardy murders have elicited some strong statements over the years.
The Mississippi Supreme Court has opined that Evans’ desperate attempt to exclude Black people from the jury is the most flagrant example of racially biased jury selection they have ever witnessed.
Robert Johnson, former chief of the Jackson, Mississippi police department, called the investigation that led to Mr. Flowers’ arrest “the worst investigation I have ever seen.”
Curtis Flowers has now been tried six times for the same crime with the state using the same evidence, the same witnesses and the same strategy every time. Three guilty verdicts have been reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court because of gross prosecutorial misconduct. On two other occasions, juries split along racial lines. In the fourth trial, for instance, all five Black jurors voted to acquit while all seven White jurors were willing to convict.
Prosecutor Doug Evans, has a case he can sell to white jurors. But Black jurors aren’t buying.
How do we account for this gap in perception?
From the moment four bodies were discovered in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi, this case has been driven by racial, social and political anxiety.
Doug Evans was looking at four victims and no murder weapon. This meant trouble and he knew it. (more…)
Just over three years after Curtis Flowers was convicted for murdering four people at a Mississippi furniture store in 1996, his attorneys have filed an appeal. You may wonder how it could take three years to compose an appeal brief, especially in a case so open-and-shut that a jury took only 29 minutes to render a guilty verdict.
This wasn’t Curtis Flowers’ first courtroom rodeo. In fact, he has gone to trial on these charges six times, more than any other capital defendant in the history of American jurisprudence.
Convictions in Flowers 1 and 2 were reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court due to gross prosecutorial misconduct (primarily arguing facts not in evidence) and racially biased jury selection procedures. Other trials ended in hung juries, largely because DA Doug Evans, fearful of another reversal, didn’t take heroic measures to keep African Americans off the jury. In the most dramatic case, five Black jurors voted to acquit while seven White jurors found Evans’ case convincing. (more…)
Paul Alexander’s concise article in the Daily Beast provides the best summary of this complicated case published to date. If you want to know more about DA Doug Evan’s ties to an unapologetically racist organization, or the reasons many (myself included) find the witnesses in this case less than credible, you can read Alexander’s eBook Mistriedor check out my blogging on the subject. But if you have never heard of Curtis Flowers and are wondering why Alexander calls him “Mississippi’s Marked Man” this is a great place to start. Bottom line, this case has never been investigated, and that needs to change. AGB
Paul Alexander is the accomplished author of eight books, numerous eBooks, and over 100 major articles written for publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times. When he stumbled across my blogging on the Curtis Flowers story, he was immediately interested. A native of Birmingham, AL, Alexander knows how racial bias is infused into every facet of social life, including the criminal justice system.
Still, my conclusions were too damning to be taken at face value. Alexander visited Winona, Mississippi, re-interviewed the folks I talked to several years ago, and dug up some fascinating (and disturbing) new information.
The result is Mistried, a gripping eBook released yesterday by RosettaBooks. You can get the Kindle version for free at Amazon if you act quickly, (or pay $2.99 if you dawdle). Most readers can digest the contents in less than two hours; the book is of very modest length because Alexander doesn’t waste a word.
If you like the book, please leave a comment and a five-star rating on the Amazon site.
Can a person be tried more than once for the same crime in the United States? Under usual circumstances, no. But in Mississippi, one man was tried six times for the same brutal crime-and his ordeal still hasn’t ended. (more…)
Doug Berman is a law professor, sentencing expert and ardent blogger. He could be described as a pragmatic progressive who wants to reform the criminal justice system but advocates policy proposals with a real chance of being implemented. Berman notes that most people have moral problems with the death penalty but still want it available for “the worst of the worst”. One solution is to restrict the ultimate penalty to the federal system and take it out of the hands of states courts altogether.
Unlike Berman, I am not a death penalty agnostic. When I think of the death penalty I immediately envision Curtis Flowers, a demonstrably innocent man locked away in solitary confinement in Mississippi’s Parchman prison. If the conviction in his record-setting sixth trial fails to hold (as is likely) and there is no way to retry Flowers at the state level without punting on the death penalty, District Attorney Doug Evans would have a dilemma on his hands. The investigation of this case was so flawed, and the “evidence” presented to six juries has been so shamelessly manufactured that it would never withstand federal scrutiny.
Prosecutor Doug Evans’ intimate ties to the proudly racist Council of Conservative Citizens provides a partial explanation for his decision to build a case around the perjured testimony of a lying opportunist who is in federal prison for tax fraud using threats and the false promise of a $30,000 reward. This case would disintegrate in minutes if it was handed to a competent federal prosecutor and the same could be said for dozens of other weak cases involving black defendants and racially biased prosecutors that have been tried before predominantly white juries in little towns like Winona, Mississippi.
As long-time readers know, I like to describe myself a “death-penalty agnostic” concerning the theoretical and empirical arguments that traditionally surround the the criminal punishment of death. But while I have long been uncertain about the “meta” arguments for and against capital punishment, as a matter of modern US policy and procedures I have a firm and distinctive view: given (1) persistent public/democratic support for death as a possible punishment for the “worst of the worst,” and given (2) persistent evidence that states struggle in lots of ways for lots of reasons with the fair and effective administration of capital punishment, I believe that (1+2=3) as a policy and practical matter we ought to consider and embrace an exclusively federal death penalty.
Regular readers have seen and surely remember various prior post in which I have talked through this idea a bit, and I have linked some of these posts below. But, as the title of this post is meant to highlight, I think the soundness and wisdom of my distinctive view on the best modern way to administer capital punishment in the United States is now on full display in the wake of the Boston bombings.
Massachusetts, of course, does not have death as an available punishment. And yet, I have already seen reports of many local and state officials (not to mention Massachusetts citizens) who now say they are open to (if not eager to) have the bombing suspect(s) prosecuted in federal court in part because federal law includes the possibility of the death penalty. Moreover, there is every reason to view terror bombings like these, whether or not they have direct international connections and implications, as the kinds of crimes that ought to be investigated and prosecuted primarily by national authorities (assisted, of course, by state and local official and agents).
Stated in slightly different terms and with the events in Boston now making these ideas especially salient and timely, I believe that essentially by definition in our modern globally-wired and national-media-saturated American society (1) every potential “worst of the worst” murder is of national (and not just local) concern, and (2) every potential “worst of the worst” murder merits the potential involvement of federal investigators, and (3) federal authorities have constitutional and practical reasons for wanting or needing to be the primary “deciders” concerning the investigation and prosecution of every potential “worst of the worst” murder, and (4) state and local officials typically will welcome being able to “federalize” any potential “worst of the worst” murder, and thus (1+2+3+4=5) we should just make death a punishment only available at the federal level so that the feds know they can and should get involved if (and only when?) federal interests and/or the value of cooperative federalism are implicated by any potential “worst of the worst” murder.
I first learned about Lawrence Guyot from reading Taylor Branch’s celebrated Trilogy on the King Years. His name came up again when I researched the background of the Curtis Flowers story. Readers of this blog will know that Guyot, Fannie Lou Hamer and several other civil rights activists were beaten within an inch of their lives by men under the command of Sheriff Earl Wayne Patridge at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Winona, Mississippi in June of 1963. Three decades later, Mr. Flowers was arrested on the basis of fabricated evidence for the 1996 slaying of four people at a Winona furniture store.
A little over a year ago, I had the chance to meet the man in the flesh when he spoke at an event in Cleveland, MS sponsored by the Samuel Procter Oral History Program at the University of Florida. The civil rights icon seemed more interested in telling the students what they needed to do in the present moment than he was in sharing tidbits of civil rights nostalgia. This September, my wife Nancy and I shared our story with the Florida students.
This New York Times story captures the essence of Guyot’s amazing saga. There was nothing unusual about the man. He was not particularly eloquent or brilliant; he just refused to back down in the face of injustice. Without Lawrence Guyot’s brand of anonymous courage, the civil rights movement could not have succeeded. (more…)