As Black History Month concludes, we highlight the story of Curtis Flowers. This story is a small glimpse into the injustices that continue to exist within our legal systems. We ask our members to consider how your internal biases and prejudice may impact your work, and how we can continue work toward Justice for All.
But the numbers alone, while horrible, do not capture the humanity behind the individuals being added together. Each of those counts, the numbers going into percentage points and statistics, has a person behind it. A person with all of the internal complexities and outward web of family history and relationships, where the impact of incarceration radiates out into the community to be felt for decades and generations to come. A person with a story.
The story of Curtis Flowers is a powerful and sobering one, clearly illustrating the darker side of prosecutorial discretion. His case is especially remarkable because he was tried for the same murder six times, ultimately spending more than 20 years incarcerated and on death row.
Season 2 of the podcast In the Dark walks through the story of Curtis Flowers in a compelling multi-year project of remarkable investigative journalism. It is a worthwhile listen. But it doesn’t paint a pretty picture.
It started with a murder. Inside Tardy Furniture store in Winona, Mississippi on the morning of July 16, 1996, four people were fatally shot. The crime lacked an obvious motive or signs of a struggle. The murder weapon was never found.
Direct evidence against Curtis Flowers—a local 26-year-old Black man—was slim. The case against him included a myriad of eyewitnesses who gave their original statements to law enforcement under questionable circumstances, who were impeached by their own family members with accusations of perjury, or who subsequently recanted and refused to testify at later trials.
The same State District Attorney, Doug Evans, was the lead prosecutor at all six trials.
The first two trials in 1997 and 1999 ended in convictions but were overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court because of prosecutorial misconduct. In both matters, Flowers was indicted for the murder of only one victim, but the prosecution presented substantial arguments regarding the other victims through opening and closing statements, as well as admitted evidence in photographs, diagrams, and other testimony. The third trial in 2004 also ended in a conviction, but was again overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court because the prosecution was found to have impermissibly discriminated against black jurors during the jury selection process.
The fourth and fifth trials in 2007 and 2008 both resulted in mistrials due to hung juries, where a unanimous verdict was never reached. The sixth and ultimately final trial in 2010 again resulted in a conviction. On appeal, the United States Supreme Court remanded the case to the Mississippi Supreme Court for review of potential racial discrimination in jury selection. The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the original decision, but the United States Supreme Court ultimately overturned Flowers' conviction in 2019 because of the prosecution’s efforts to keep Black people off the jury. In the six trials combined, the State employed its preemptory challenges to strike 41 of the 42 prospective black jurors.
It was not until after the 2019 Supreme Court decision that Evans recused himself from the case, after being directly responsible for the prosecutorial misconduct that resulted in four convictions being overturned.
And on September 4, 2020, the State District Attorney who took over the case from Evans announced that she would not seek a seventh trial against Flowers. The charges were dropped, and Curtis Flowers was left to put together a new story for himself after spending 23 years, nearly his entire adult life, living in the grave injustices of our justice system.
Curtis Flowers (Photo Courtesy of Mississippi Department of Corrections)
Twenty-three years is far too long for JUSTICE. The story of Curtis Flowers is not the first and may not be the last. However, it reminds us of the work that is left to be done to insure equal protection under the law for ALL. As we close yet another chapter in the remembrance of Black History and move into Women's History Month, we remind everyone that the quest for a more perfect union continues. Let's continue to LEAD BEYOND until our legal justice system is JUST.
 https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/  https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons/  https://features.apmreports.org/in-the-dark/season-two/  Doug Evans is still the chief prosecutor for seven counties in Mississippi, re-elected for another four-year term in November 2019. https://www.apmreports.org/story/2020/10/14/will-doug-evans-face-accountability.
Marty Whalen Brown is a Staff Adjudicator at the Office of Appeals in the Colorado Department of Human Services. She holds a J.D. degree from the University of Colorado Law School and clerked at the Office of the Presiding Disciplinary Judge under the Colorado Supreme Court after graduating.