Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Persecution of Curtis Flowers

An Interview with Dr. Alan Bean

By JOE ALLEN March 17, 2010

DR. ALAN Bean is the executive director of
Friends of Justice, a nonprofit organization that
works to uphold due process in the criminal
justice system. It was formed in response to the
infamous Tulia, Texas, drug sting of 1999, in
which forty-seven people, thirty-nine of them
African Americans, were rounded up based on the
false testimony of a corrupt and racist
undercover agent. Bean, a local Baptist minister,
played a key role in organizing to expose the
Tulia travesty and working to free the
defendants. The Texas legislature, in response to
the work of the Friends of Justice, passed the
Tulia Corroboration Bill, which has led to the
exoneration of dozens of innocent people by
raising the evidentiary standards for undercover testimony.

Learning from this victory, Friends of Justice
established Operation Blind Justice, organizing
in affected communities across Texas, Louisiana,
Arkansas, and Mississippi to restore due process
protections to poor people of color. Bean and
Friends of Justice played an instrumental role in
publicizing the Jena 6 case, where six
African-American high school students faced long
prison terms after a fight with white students
following the hanging of nooses on campus to
intimidate Black students. Over 30,000 people
marched in Jena, Louisiana, in September 2007 to
protest the prosecution of the Jena 6. The
charges against five of them were expunged from their records.

Recently, Friends of Justice has turned its
attention to Winona, Mississippi­ a town not far
from Philadelphia, where three civil rights
workers were murdered in the early 1960s. There,
Curtis Flowers faces his sixth trial for the same
murder charge. So far, the case has received more
attention in Great Britain than it has in the
American press. A primer on the Curtis Flowers
case can be found at the Friends of Justice Web
site. See also an interview with Bean on the Jena
6 case in ISR issue 55, November–December 2007.

TELL US about the case of Curtis Flowers and its historical significance.

WHEN CURTIS Flowers goes to trial in June of this
year, he will become the first man in U.S.
history to be tried six times on the same murder
charges. In July of 1996, four people were shot
to death in a furniture store in Winona,
Mississippi. Curtis Flowers, a young
African-American Winona resident, had worked for
the furniture store for three days and two weeks
before the murders. When a check in his name was
discovered on the desk of the murdered
proprietor, Bertha Tardy, Flowers became the prime suspect.
Because nothing apart from the check on Ms.
Tardy’s desk connected Curtis to the crime, it
took District Attorney Doug Evans over half a
year to build a case. It appeared certain that
the murder weapon belonged to Doyle Simpson, a
part-time janitor at a local garment factory.
Simpson reported that the weapon had been stolen
from his car the morning of the murders.
According to the state’s theory of the crime,
Curtis Flowers walked from his home to the
parking lot of the garment factory, stole
Simpson’s handgun, and walked home. An hour
later, he walked to the furniture store, killed
four people, and walked back to his home.
Investigators spent six months walking the route
Flowers allegedly followed, offering a $30,000
reward to anyone who remembered seeing Curtis
Flowers passing by their home on the fateful
morning. It took several months before any
witnesses provided information to the police, and
some didn’t cooperate with the investigation
until half a year after the murders.

The first two trials were held outside Winona and
Montgomery County. Flowers was convicted and
sentenced to death on both occasions, but the
verdicts were vacated by the Mississippi Supreme
Court due to prosecutorial misconduct. The third
trial took place in Winona, and once again
Flowers was convicted and sentenced to death, but
the Supreme Court ruled that the prosecutor
illegally prevented African-American residents from serving on the jury.

The fourth trial was held in Winona in December
of 2007. This time a chastened Doug Evans made no
effort to restrict jury service to white
residents and a jury of five African-Americans
and seven whites was selected. The jury split
along racial lines; all five Black jurors voted
to acquit; all seven white jurors voted to convict.

The tension in Winona is so extreme that when a
Black juror voted to acquit at the conclusion of
the fifth trial in 2008, Judge Joseph Loper told
DA Evans to charge the man with perjury.
Eventually, both the judge and the prosecutor
were recused from the case and the Mississippi
attorney general’s office quietly dismissed the charges.

Friends of Justice agreed to get involved in the
Flowers case because it fits an all-too-familiar
pattern of testimony shaping and witness
manipulation. The recent rash of DNA-based
exonerations have revealed that wrongful
conviction is a much worse problem than most
people realize, that faulty witness
identification is the chief culprit, and that
people of color have been disproportionately
impacted. The Flowers case is the perfect poster child for this problem.

WHY HAVE Mississippi prosecutors staked so much on this case?

THE TARDY murders (as they are now called)
presented District Attorney Doug Evans with every
prosecutor’s worst nightmare: a particularly
heinous murder involving socially prominent
victims and very little real evidence. Since the
name of Curtis Flowers had been associated with
the case from the beginning, Evans had no choice
but to make the best case he could. If the
prosecutor didn’t have evidence connecting
Flowers to the crime, evidence had to be found.

It is commonly assumed that African-American
jurors take Flowers’ side in this case out of a
perverse desire to protect one of their own. The
truth is much more complicated than that.
African-American residents of Winona and
Montgomery County know Curtis Flowers as the lead
singer in a popular gospel quartet that performs
regularly in local churches. Whoever pulled the
trigger four times in the Tardy furniture store
in 1996 was a cold-blooded killer, a person
devoid of conscience. Those who know Curtis best
believe he is incapable of committing such a
crime under any circumstances. In addition, many
African-American residents question the
credibility of the witnesses in the Flowers case.
White residents in this racially divided
community have no personal experience with Curtis
Flowers or the largely African-American witnesses
who originally agreed to testify in anticipation
of a $30,000 payoff, and are therefore willing to accept the state’s narrative.

Defense counsel wants to keep holding trials in
Winona. They doubt they can win a clear
acquittal, but so long as they can place one
African-American juror in the jury box they have
a good shot at a hung jury. Frustrated by this
strategy, DA Evans has shaped legislation that
would allow the prosecution in cases that have
gone to trial at least three times, to select a
jury from a five-county region. This would make
it possible to seat a jury in which no one is
even slightly acquainted with the Flowers family.
The “Flowers Bill” has been championed by State
Senator Lydia Chassaniol, a proud member of the
overtly racist Council of Conservative Citizens.
The legislation was approved by the Senate in
2009, but in the House, the bill was killed in
committee by an African-American committee
chairman. Senator Chassaniol is currently making
a second attempt to get her Flowers bill passed.

When Curtis Flowers goes to trial in June, the
situation in Winona will be unspeakably tense.

CAN YOU tell us about the civil rights record of
the region where the Flowers case is taking place?

IN THE summer of 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer and
several other civil rights activists were
brutally beaten in the Montgomery County jail.
The group was returning from a training session
in nonviolent resistance and had exited the bus
in Winona to use the restroom and grab a quick
meal. Emboldened by their training, the
African-American activists asked to be served at
the all-white restaurant. They were immediately
arrested, stuffed into police cars and booked
into the local jail. Hamer was beaten with a
blackjack by two African-American inmates under
the supervision of Sheriff Earl Patridge, his
deputies, and a Mississippi state trooper. The
assault left Ms. Hamer half dead and she never fully recovered.

Most of the men and women associated with the
Flowers prosecution (Judge Joseph Loper, District
Attorney Doug Evans, investigator John Johnson,
and Senator Lydia Chassaniol) were in junior high
school when Fannie Lou Hamer and her friends were
assaulted. In 1963, African Americans in
Mississippi had no civil rights and no due
process protections. Mississippi has seen a great
deal of positive change since 1963, but not as
much as most people think. Fannie Lou Hamer
mesmerized the 1964 Democratic Convention in
Atlantic City by recounting her experience in
Winona. But Mississippi Democrats voted en masse
for archconservative Republican Barry Goldwater.

In the Mississippi Delta, the struggle for civil
rights was uniquely brutal and ultimately
inconclusive. Neo-Confederate nostalgia and civil
rights resentment are both strong in the rural
regions of Mississippi, which explains why a
politician like Lydia Chassaniol can openly
embrace the Council of Conservative Citizens (a
resurgence of the old White Citizens’ Councils)
without raising eyebrows or paying a political
price. In Montgomery County, this kind of talk
wins elections. The prosecution of Curtis Flowers
suggests that neo-Confederate nostalgia and civil
rights resentment influence the criminal justice
system as much as they shape the political
landscape. Mississippi’s progress is most evident
in urban areas like Jackson and educational
enclaves like Oxford (the home of Ole Miss), but
the continued influence of Old South values is
still on display in the rural sections of the
state. The relatively progressive rulings of the
Mississippi Supreme Court are in sharp contrast
to the legal realities in the Montgomery County Courthouse.

WHERE IS the case likely to go from here?

WHEN THE sixth trial begins in June, Winona
residents on both sides of the racial divide will
experience the same collective agony. For family
and friends of the four murder victims, the
repetition of gruesome details will rip open
wounds that have never been allowed to heal.
White Winona residents, with very few exceptions,
will be praying for a unanimous guilty verdict
that satisfies the state Supreme Court.
Supporters of Curtis Flowers will be praying for
another hung jury. The state will present
essentially the same case it has laid out in five
previous trials. Thirteen years have passed since
the case was first tried in 1997 and several key
witnesses are no longer living. The state’s
witnesses know that if they recant their earlier
testimony they will be charged with perjury. Both
sides are steeling themselves for another
near-miss for the prosecution and a continuation
of an agonizing legal melodrama.

The Flowers bill currently being debated in the
Mississippi Senate will probably pass, while the
House version of the bill will likely be killed
in committee once again. Even if the legislation
is signed into law, it will almost certainly be
declared unconstitutional because it violates a
defendant’s right to a jury of his or her peers.

Friends of Justice is trying to break this
judicial logjam by placing the Flowers story in
its proper historical context. Until recently,
the case had attracted little attention outside
Mississippi but that is gradually changing. In
December 2010, the British Broadcasting
Corporation (BBC) aired a radio documentary on
the Flowers story that raised all the big
questions Friends of Justice has placed on the
table. We anticipate that as the trial date
approaches the case will attract national media
attention, if only because no capital defendant
has ever faced the same charges six times.

But Friends of Justice is encouraging reporters
and advocacy groups to move beyond the
unprecedented aspects of this story. We are
witnessing a wrongful prosecution in the making.
The prosecution, we contend, is using a form of
legal sleight of hand to transform a hopeless
jumble of contradictory facts into a coherent
narrative. By questioning the competency and
objectivity of the state prosecutor and by taking
the state’s evidentiary cards off the table
one-by-one, we intend to derail a flawed and
dangerous prosecution. In the process, we will
draw parallels between the Flowers case and
prosecutions like the Troy Davis case in Georgia
and the Kelvin Kaigler case in Louisiana that
follow the same dangerous pattern.

WHAT CAN be done to support Curtis Flowers?

THE FIRST step is to become educated about the
case. The Friends of Justice Web site
has a separate Curtis Flowers section devoted
exclusively to the facts and historical
background. Stories appearing in the mainstream
and alternative media will also appear in this section.

Secondly, we are planning a series of Common
Peace Civil Rights tours through Montgomery
County and the Mississippi Delta that will have
life-changing impact. There will be opportunities
on the Web site to sign up for this experience.

Finally, trial number six begins on June 7, 2010,
and the presence of outside observers would be most welcome.

CAN YOU tell us about the recent work of Friends of Justice?

FRIENDS OF Justice has always tackled factually
ambiguous cases where the prosecution’s narrative
doesn’t fit the facts. Most advocacy groups shy
away from actual legal cases in anticipation of
the “But what if he’s guilty?” question. In
recent years, actual innocence cases rooted in
unassailable DNA evidence have gained nationwide
attention. Unfortunately, less than 15 percent of
criminal cases involve meaningful DNA evidence
and the DNA in all but a few cold cases has already been tested.

Friends of Justice believes the time has come to
demand that prosecutors prove guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt no matter how heinous the crime.
Too many cases are marred by witness
manipulation, junk science, and crude attempts to
undermine the perceived character of defendants.
For this reason, Friends of Justice is focusing
on a string of cases in Texas and the South
featuring similar fact patterns and dangerous
prosecutorial tactics. In none of these cases can
we prove actual innocence to a certainty, but we
shouldn’t have to. When the state can win
convictions without meeting its proper burden,
innocent people go to prison. By focusing on
cases with a high potential for wrongful
conviction, Friends of Justice is drawing
national attention to a serious problem that is rarely acknowledged.

Currently, we are monitoring a trial in
Lafayette, Louisiana, in which several
African-American defendants are being prosecuted
in federal court largely on the basis of inmate
snitch testimony. In an earlier case in the same
court, Friends of Justice alleged that inmates
were running perjury mills in the federal prison
system with the purpose of cobbling together
convincing, but completely manufactured,
testimony. There is no parole in the federal
system and inmates serving multi-decade sentences
can earn generous time cuts by testifying against former associates.

At the same time, we will be investigating the
case of Kelvin “Dreads” Kaigler, a young
African-American resident of Slidell, Louisiana,
who was recently convicted of murder on the sole
testimony of a white drug dealer facing a life
sentence. Essentially, the drug dealer was given
a choice between sixty years without parole if he
refused to implicate Kelvin, and seven years if he did.

While working on the Kaigler case, we were
contacted by the mother of yet another young man
who was recently prosecuted by the same court and
in the same fashion. Ultimately, Friends of
Justice will convince a skeptical public that
wrongful conviction is a major problem that can
be diagnosed, exposed, and eradicated.

Joe Allen is the author of Vietnam:
The (Last) War the U.S. Lost.

1 comment:

evision said...