Tried Six Times For The Same Crime: The Infuriating Case Of Curtis Flowers
“I feel good right now,” he told the reporters waiting outside. “I’m happy.” Flanking Mr. Flowers were his sisters Priscilla Ward and Charita Baskin, each with an arm linked through his. Priscilla, a joyous smile lighting her face, told reporters, “We’re going to go for fried fish.”
Back in 1996, Mr. Flowers was charged with committing a quadruple murder at Tardy Furniture, a local furniture store. He was tried six times. Four of the six trials ended with a death sentence. In 2020, the state of Mississippi dropped all charges against Mr. Flowers.
How can a person be tried six times for the same crime?
When most people hear that a man has been tried six times for the same crime, their first reaction is, “Isn’t that double jeopardy?” But double jeopardy only applies for defendants who have been acquitted. Two of Mr. Flowers’s trials did end in a hung jury, and several of the guilty verdicts were thrown out by the Mississippi Supreme Court due to incompetence on the part of State Prosecutor Doug Evans. But Mr. Flowers was never acquitted.
If not for journalists, Curtis Flowers may have been tried a seventh time.
Season two of American Public Media’s “In the Dark” podcast chronicled the horrific murders at Hardy Furniture and trials of Curtis Flowers. Investigative journalist Madeleine Baran and her team combed through decades of court cases files, retracing the path prosecutors say Curtis Flowers took, and re-interviewing witnesses who had initially implicated Mr. Flowers in the months following the murders. What they found played a huge part in the eventual release and dropping of charges against Curtis Flowers.
If you have any doubt whether systemic racism still exists and still causes harm…
Mississippi State Prosecutor Doug Evans is the linchpin in the injustices against Curtis Flowers. “In the Dark” journalists analyzed Mr. Evans’s jury selection history and learned that over his 26 years as a prosecutor, Mr. Evans struck Black prospective jurors at nearly 4½ times the rate he struck white ones. His goal was indeed to prosecute Mr. Flowers with as close to an all-white jury as he could get, and indeed the trials with more Black jurists were the ones that ended up with hung juries.
Three of Curtis Flowers’s convictions were overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct, with racist jury selection as a common theme. And yet the Attorney General’s office never stepped in to reprimand Mr. Evans or ask him to recuse himself from the case.
Doug Evans failed miserably as an investigator.
“In the Dark” journalists unearthed numerous other problems and inconsistencies with Doug Evans’ “investigation.” One of the more glaring issues was that neither the defense nor any jury was given information about an initial suspect who had a violent criminal history (Curtis Flowers had no history of arrests at all). Willie James Hemphill was detained for 11 days following the Hardy Furniture murders and wore the same brand of shoes as the bloody footprints found at the scene.
Hemphill supposedly had an alibi for the time of the murders, but when In The Dark dug into it, they were able to determine his alibi was barely credible if at all. The fact that Doug Evans’s office never revealed any of this to the defense is a Brady violation (the unconstitutional withholding of evidence favorable to the accused).
Journalists also found that the prosecution’s key witness, Odell Hallmon, who in Flowers’s second trial had claimed that Flowers confessed to him that he had committed the murders (a flip from previous testimony supported by hard evidence), later admitted he’d lied about the confession. Perhaps more importantly, he lied when he said prosecutors had not offered him anything in exchange for testifying against Flowers.
Baran’s team also found that unscientific forensic methods to test bullets had been used to tie the gun used in the murders to a gun stolen from Flowers’s step-uncle. (Contrary to the myth perpetuated by TV crime dramas, bullets do not retain unique “fingerprint-like” marks after being shot.)
Witnesses that supposedly remembered Flowers walking in the area near where the murders took place were inconsistent, unreliable, and their testimony manipulated by investigators.
All charges against Curtis Flowers were finally dropped.
After the sixth trial, in which Mr. Flowers was once again found guilty by a predominantly white jury, his case was taken on appeal to the United States Supreme Court. It is telling that even the conservative-leaning judges on the court had harsh criticism of both Mississippi State Prosecutor Doug Evans and the Mississippi Attorney General’s office.
During the Supreme Court hearing, Justice Alito, a former prosecutor known for his conservatism, asked the lawyer representing the state of Mississippi how it was that the Mississippi Attorney General’s office allowed Evans to continue pursuing Flowers. “Well, could we say in — in this case, because of the unusual and really disturbing history,” Alito said, “this case just could not have been tried this sixth time by the same prosecutor?”
Justice Kavanaugh’s criticism was even harsher. In his writing of the Court’s majority opinion, he wrote, “Equal justice under law requires a criminal trial free of racial discrimination in the jury selection process” and that Evans “was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent,” that his “relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of Black individuals strongly suggests that the State wanted to try Flowers before a jury with as few Black jurors as possible, and ideally before an all-white jury.”
Even Assistant Attorney General Jason Davis, representing the state of Mississippi and arguing that the justices let Flowers’ most recent conviction stand, admitted to the court that “the history in this case is troubling.”
The Court overturned Flowers’ 2010 conviction in a 7-2 ruling, finding that Evans intentionally struck Black prospective jurors at the sixth trial. In early March of 2021, the state of Mississippi awarded Mr. Flowers $500,000, the maximum allowed in the state, in compensation for his wrongful conviction and nearly 23 years of imprisonment. He will be paid in $50,000 installments over the next 10 years.
The real killer is likely still out there, and so is Doug Evans.
Perhaps worst of all is that the real murderer may still be out there. It’s sad to think that if Doug Evans hadn’t wasted so much time trying to prove to himself and others that he hadn’t made a mistake, the real killer could have been found. The families of the four people murdered could have gotten some measure of closure. Meanwhile, Doug Evans was reelected for office in 2019 and remains the chief prosecutor in several Mississippi counties. He ran unopposed.
Mr. Flowers recently announced news of his engagement and says he is “living every day to the fullest.”
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