Home > Uncategorized > Some questions around the Curtis Flowers case – posted 9/19/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 9/28/2020

Some questions around the Curtis Flowers case – posted 9/19/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 9/28/2020

Possibly readers saw the story about Curtis Flowers, an African American man from Mississippi who was tried six times for capital murder. The same white prosecutor, Doug Evans, tried for over 20 years to convict Flowers and to see him executed.

The case originated in 1996 when someone shot and killed four people at a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi. Flowers’ convictions have now been overturned and he is a free man. After the sixth trial in which he was convicted and the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction.

The state of Mississippi, through their Attorney General, decided to drop charges. The case was finally dismissed, with prejudice, which means the murder case cannot be brought against Flowers again.

In the six murder trials, four had ended in convictions and two had resulted in hung juries. Flowers spent 23 years in Parchman Prison in a solitary cell on Death Row in spite of the wrongful nature of his convictions. The District Attorney (D.A.) engaged in a pattern of gross prosecutorial misconduct. During the trials, he and his office hid evidence which should have been turned over to the defense. He also consistently used peremptory challenges to keep black people off the jury.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1986 case of Batson v Kentucky that it is unconstitutional to strike potential jurors on account of race but that is exactly what the prosecutor did in the Flowers case. And he did it over and over. The prosecutor has never faced any discipline or penalty for his long history of misconduct. In fact, he was re-elected in 2019 in an unopposed race.

The case got an unusual amount of publicity because of the podcast, In the Dark, from American Public Media. Over a three year period, the people behind the podcast delved into every aspect of the Flowers case. Upon close inspection, the case against Flowers turned into a house of cards and collapsed.

The prosecution’s key witnesses recanted. There were no eyewitnesses, no physical evidence and no DNA evidence connecting Flowers to the murders. The murder weapon was not found in 1996. A Winona local found a 380 caliber pistol in 2001 near the site of the murders. It matched the type of weapon used in the murders and it was turned over to the D.A.’s office but somehow the weapon got lost.

The Mississippi Attorney General ultimately realized there was no case against Flowers.

It would be easy to dismiss the whole case as some kind of nutty aberration but questions abound. How could the same prosecutor be allowed to bring the case six times when he had been found to have committed prosecutorial misconduct as well as repeated Batson violations? Why did the prosecutor consistently pursue only Flowers when he had only the weakest circumstantial evidence? How could the white trial judge arrest and charge an African American hold-out juror with perjury after one of the trials where there was a hung jury?

The case raises larger systemic issues about racism in the criminal justice system and in our society. Why did the Mississippi Bar take no action against the prosecutor over a period of 20 plus years when courts had pointed out and reversed his racist misconduct? How was the D.A.’s conduct not an ethics violation? Why did the Mississippi Attorney General never step into the case to take it away from the D.A.? Why did Mississippi voters in 2019 re-elect this same prosecutor when he had a track record littered with racism ?

The sad truth is that Mississippi has failed to face its past. For all the talk about a new South, the Flowers case reeks of the old South. And, of course, it is not just Mississippi. The Flowers case, in microcosm, highlights an unwillingness to be honest about the terrible history that stains America. While the Flowers case is egregious, there are many other cases where black people have been wrongly fingered and put away. Those cases were not fortunate enough to have any brilliant podcast focus on them.

The history in the Flowers case is instructive in showing the pattern. A serious crime occurs and the prosecutor and police are put under tremendous pressure to come up with a perpetrator. All too often, a black man, almost any black man, will do. The public goes along as long as somebody is charged. The quality of the evidence does not seem to matter. The fact that someone is apprehended satisfies the community, especially the white community.

Flowers was 26 at the time of his arrest. He had no criminal record. There was at least one other suspect who had a history of violence.who was investigated and held in jail for 11 days. His existence was never disclosed by the prosecutors who always asserted Flowers was the only suspect in the case. Even after evidence came out about this suspect through the podcast, the D.A.’s office continued to cover this up.

The podcast more broadly researched D.A. Doug Evans’ use of peremptory challenges to strike black jurors. It was a common occurrence in all of his trials.

In the Dark also found a racist pattern of peremptory questioning of possible jurors. On average, the D.A. asked one question of possible white jurors while asking potential black jurors twenty nine questions. The D.A. used all his peremptory challenges to strike black jurors.

How many other Curtis Flowers are out there? It is a safe bet that all the dirty tricks were not used on him alone.

Any honest reckoning about how far we have come on racism must account for the deeply ingrained patterns demonstrated in the Flowers case. We have moved beyond lynchings to legal lynchings. The Flowers case is Exhibit A. We should not kid ourselves about progress made.

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