On July 30th, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) held hearings on Capitol Hill entitled “A Conversation on Race and Justice in America” in response to the intense national debate that has resulted from the killing of Trayvon Martin. Racial profiling – “a secret hiding in public,” according to panelist Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center – was discussed, as were Stand Your Ground laws. Less attention was paid to the perilous way the legal system treats some African-Americans who end up in it, especially those with neither the money nor the means to defend themselves.
Consider Curtis Flowers. Today, he sits on Mississippi’s death row, where he has been for 16 years. Tried six times on the same murder charges – the only known person in American history to endure that fate – he has never hedged in proclaiming his innocence, even refusing plea bargains. “I’m not going to say I killed someone when I didn’t,” he said in 2010. “I would rather be executed and go to Heaven and know I did the right thing than to be in this world if I have to admit to something I didn’t do.”
Flowers’ ordeal began in July 1996 on the morning Bertha Tardy and three of her employees were killed execution-style in her furniture store in Winona, Mississippi. They were shot with such precision that it took only five bullets to kill four people. Two weeks earlier, Flowers worked for Tardy for about three days. He said he quit; others said he was fired. Regardless, Doug Evans, the local district attorney, zeroed in on Flowers as a disgruntled employee and made him the prime suspect.
Just who was this cold-blooded killer? At the time, Flowers was a 26-year-old unemployed furniture-factory worker who was known in Winona’s African-American community for being in his father’s gospel singing group. He had no criminal record. He did not own a gun. Mostly, he liked to fish, hang out with his girlfriend and sing.
Other details emerged. On the morning of the crime, a relative of Flowers had a revolver stolen from his car – the same type of gun used to commit the murders. A bloody footprint at the crime scene was left by the same size and make sneaker that police found a shoebox for in the duplex where Flowers lived. Now convinced Flowers was the killer, Evans filed charges – even though Flowers’ girlfriend said that the sneakers belonged to her son, not Flowers, and had long since been thrown away. Futhermore, according to the relative who owned the car, Flowers was unaware there was a gun in the car – so how could he know to steal it?
Then why Flowers? Dianna Freelon-Foster, former mayor of Grenada, a town in Evans’ judicial district, pins the blame squarely on the district attorney: “I think he’s a racist white supremacist,” she says. Strong words, but Evans does have a history on race. In 1991, he delivered the keynote address at a Webster County meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a neo-segregationist organization that opposes, according to its current mission statement, “all efforts to mix the races of mankind [and] to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called ‘affirmative action.'” In 1992, Evans attended a CCC address delivered by Robert “Tut” Patterson, the notorious segregationist who founded the White Citizens Council to fight school desegregation. The CCC’s newsletter reported Evans’ attendance at both events. (Evans did not respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment for this story.)
The prosecution of Flowers manifested racial overtones. In the first two trials, the court seated almost all-white juries that found Flowers guilty – verdicts overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court on the basis of, among other things, “prosecutorial misconduct” (the court found that Evans repeatedly argued facts that were not in evidence). In the third trial, which saw another almost all-white jury convict Flowers, it was racial discrimination that became the mitigating issue. “[W]e find that the State engaged in racially discriminatory practices during the jury selection process,” the higher court wrote in ordering a new trial.
The court seated a racially balanced jury for the fourth trial, which ended in a mistrial with all seven white jurors voting to convict and all five black jurors voting to acquit. The fifth trial reverted to a predominantly white jury, but when one African-American juror refused to vote guilty, it caused a hung jury. Evans charged that juror, a retired schoolteacher and Vietnam veteran, with perjury after the trial judge accused the juror of lying during voir dire. In time, the state attorney general dropped all charges.
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But the message was sent. When the court seated an almost all-white jury for the sixth trial, the single African-American didn’t hold out. It took the jury 30 minutes to find Flowers guilty – barely long enough to elect a foreman. An appeal is pending. “From this Court’s opinion in Flowers III,” Flowers’ appeal reads, “Evans should have learned the constitutional mandate of racial neutrality. He did not.” Saying Evans “show[ed] greater cunning, but the same purposeful discrimination on the basis of race,” the appeal argues Evans’ behavior remains in keeping “with his history of blatant discrimination in this . . . case.”
“In all of my years of observing trials,” says Alan Bean, a legal advocate who has followed the Flowers case closely, “this is one of the worst examples of prosecutorial misconduct I’ve witnessed. It’s a true miscarriage of justice.”