Friday, June 11, 2010

Curtis Flowers Starts Record Sixth Murder Trial

African American Mississippi Man Starts Record Sixth Murder Trial
by Bill Quigley / June 10th, 2010

An African American man, Curtis Flowers, made history this week when he became the
first person in U.S. history to ever go on trial for murder six times for the same
crime. Mr. Flowers has been in jail in Mississippi since 1996, accused of the murder
of four people at a furniture store. Jury selection started this week in tiny
Winona, Mississippi, population 5,482.

Mr. Flowers has been in jail since 1996 awaiting trial and was previously tried for
these murders in 1997, 1999, 2004, 2007 and 2008. All either ended in hung juries or
overturned convictions. The five previous trials have already cost the State of
Mississippi over $300,000.

Winona, known as the “Crossroads of Mississippi,” is a small town in a small poor
rural county 120 miles south of Memphis and about 100 miles north of Jackson,
Mississippi. Winona is in Montgomery County. The total population of the county is
just over 12,000. The county is 45 percent African American. The median home value
in Winona is $51,000.

A 1997 conviction of Mr. Flowers was reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court
because the prosecution improperly used theatrics and irrelevant evidence of other
crimes to inflame and prejudice the jury. A 1999 conviction was reversed because the
prosecution used hearsay evidence and twisted the facts before the jury.

A 2004 conviction was reversed after the prosecutor exercised all fifteen of his
peremptory strikes on African Americans. The Mississippi Supreme Court said that
trial “presents us with as strong a prima facie case of racial discrimination as we
have ever seen…”

The fourth and fifth trials ended in mistrials when the juries were not able to
reach a unanimous verdict.

In the 2007 trial, five African American jurors voted to acquit and the seven white
jurors voted to convict. In the 2008 trial, a retired African American teacher held
out for acquittal. The prosecutor later charged that juror with perjury, only to
drop the charge.

On Monday, because the trial is in such a small county, nearly all the prospective
jurors had some relationship to the case through family, school or work. Four white
prospective jurors were law enforcement officers and admitted they had guarded or
transported Mr. Flowers — but they said they could consider the case impartially.
Prospective African American jurors spoke about their association with the Flower’s
family through work, family, church, and a popular gospel group headed by Curtis’
father, Archie Flowers. One juror spoke of his moving experiences with Curtis
Flowers after meeting him through his church group’s prison ministry.

On Tuesday, Lajuanda Williams, an African American law student from the Mississippi
College of Law, was followed and then stopped by Montgomery County law enforcement
as she drove to Mr. Flowers’ trial.

Ms. Williams drove from Jackson, Mississippi to Winona to start her first day
observing the murder trial. She is spending the summer as an intern in the
Mississippi Office for Capital Defense. As she was approaching Winona, a Montgomery
County police car followed her for about a mile then turned on his lights and pulled
her over.

When she rolled down her window, the officer instructed Ms. Williams to place her
hands on the steering wheel and not look at him, look directly ahead. She complied.
She knew she had not been speeding and had broken no laws.

He asked Ms. Williams where she was going. She asked him, “Have I broken any laws?”
He responded, that’s not the question I asked you. What I asked is where are you
going? Ms. Williams said “There should be some reason why you pulled me over.” The
deputy said, I’m going to ask you again. Where are you going? She told him, “I’m
going to the courthouse.” He then asked her, what is your business in Winona? She
told him, “It is not any of your business why I am here in Winona.” He said, if
that’s where you’re going, you need to drive straight to the courthouse and stay out
of trouble.

The police car then followed Ms. Williams for about 500 feet and then turned off.

During the entire exchange, Ms. Williams recalled many stories from African
Americans in her home state of Mississippi who had been tasered and injured by
officers during stops just as this. She fully complied with deputy’s order to look
directly ahead. The deputy never gave her any reason for the stop. She was not asked
for her license. She was not warned. She was not ticketed. Unfortunately, because
she was ordered to look straight ahead, Ms. Williams was not able to identify the

Ms. Williams then drove to the courthouse to begin the first day of her internship.
She was angry but not surprised. “I know the reality of being African American in a
place like Winona”, she said. Two white interns, second year law students at the
University of San Francisco, were not stopped when they drove into Winona on

In court on Wednesday, defense counsel sought to bring up the incident with law
enforcement to the attention of the judge. The prosecutor angrily objected. Defense
counsel asked permission to put Ms. Williams on the stand. The Judge said “We’re
entering the theater of the absurd here” and that he was not interested in hearing
about what happened to Ms. Williams. He said that he could not control everything
and the stop, if it occurred, which he did not believe, didn’t have anything to do
with the case. He ordered the jury questioning to continue and refused to take any
evidence of the stop of Ms. Williams.

Ms. Williams told Alan Bean of Friends of Justice why she thought she was stopped.
“I think it came from the trial and the injustice that has been permeating this town
for years. You can cut the tension in Winona with a knife.” Why bring it up and risk
the anger of the judge and prosecutor? “I could not sleep last night,” she
explained, “I kept thinking about my daughter, she’s three years old. I kept
thinking I had to do something so that she doesn’t have to go through what I just
went through.”

While jury selection continues, the U.S. Department of Justice has been asked to
investigate the Mississippi law enforcement harassment of Ms. Williams.

Despite all this, when asked how Curtis Flowers was holding up during the trial, his
mother Lola Flowers replied “Well, he’s got the faith.”

For the criminal justice system in Winona, Mississippi, as in many other places,
William Faulkner said it best. Faulkner, Mississippi native, author, and Nobel Prize
winner, wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Click here for more information and updates on the case of Curtis Flowers.

Bill Quigley represented Pere Jean-Juste many times in Haiti along with the Bureau
des Avocats Internationaux in Port au Prince and the Institute for Justice and
Democracy in Haiti. Bill is on leave from Loyola University College of Law in New
Orleans serving as Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He can be
reached at: Read other articles by Bill, or visit Bill's
This article was posted on Thursday, June 10th

No comments: