Denying Justice


Anya Chan

“If you try a man and you go 6 times for the same crime, well something is wrong about the constitution, or something is wrong about the law, or something is wrong about the prosecution… or something is wrong about the entire system” (“In the Dark” podcast, APM).

So goes the case of Curtis Flowers, a black man from Winona, Mississippi who has spent nearly half his life in prison because deep-set institutional problems prevent him from ever achieving justice. Centuries of racism and corruption have permeated our esteemed justice system, making it incredibly difficult for people of color, particularly black men and women, to achieve true justice. Injustices such as police brutality, unfair trials, hate crimes, and implicit bias all perpetuate racial inequality in America. Today, May 29th 2020, Curtis Flowers celebrates his 50th birthday. After 23 years, six trials and four death sentences, Flowers was finally released on bail on January 23rd 2020. Flowers had been tried six times for the murders of four people for the 1996 murders at Tardy Furniture in Winona. District Attorney Doug Evans built a case against Curtis Flowers by threatening witnesses and striking black prospective jurors from the jury pool at nearly 4.5 times the rate of white ones, crafting the “evidence” of the murder at Tardy Furniture exactly as he wanted it. This is a story of holes in our justice system: discrimination in our courts, exploitation of the disadvantaged, manipulation of information, and institutional problems, which make it possible for a man to be tried six times and never achieve justice.

The prosecution’s case against Curtis Flowers wasn’t built on any one piece of evidence; there was no DNA match, no surveillance footage, no witness to the murders, nothing that would absolutely and unequivocally prove that Flowers committed the crime. Instead, the case had many smaller pieces of evidence which would not mean much on their own. But Evans had managed to string these pieces together, so that each one looked like part of a bigger story, a story which looked clear and convincing but was a web of lies. Let’s take a look at each one of these pieces. 

One major element of District Attorney Doug Evans’ case are the twelve witnesses who placed Flowers on the route he took to murder the four people at Tardy Furniture. These witnesses testified at every one of Flowers’ trials, unfailingly giving the same strong statements, that they saw Flowers on July 16th 1996, the day of the murders at Tardy Furniture. 

Yet there is something interesting about all of these witnesses. The earliest any of them spoke about seeing Flowers that day was a month later. Some even spoke out up to nine months later. Instead of the informants coming to Doug Evans and his investigator John Johnson, they came to the informants, in some cases picking them up in police cars without ever telling them where they were headed. Doug Evans and John Johnson spoke to random people, who had nothing to do with the murders at Tardy Furniture, to coerce a fabricated story from innocent people. The husband of one of the twelve informants said his wife was “pressured to talk. They wanted everything, to make some commitments that she couldn’t make.”

Roy Harris, another one of the informants, later said, “I was afraid of Johnson … I thought he would do something to me. He tryna get me all messed up anyway … He [wants to] get me locked up. It was a threat.” Roy testified in the first trial, but after the first trial, Roy went to Curtis’s lawyers and recanted his testimony. Without Harris’ testimony, Evans’ case was just a series of witnesses claiming that they had seen Curtis walking around town the day of the murder. So, he turned to a woman named Clemmy Flemming. Flemming stated that Doug Evans “asked me if I knew what 30,000 dollars could buy. You trying to get a mobile home, this amount of money could buy. They ended everything with this money to let me know that it was on the table.” Doug Evans presented the witnesses as reliable, credible, as people with excellent memories, people with no reason to lie. These witnesses were evidence of another kind. Evidence that law enforcement was willing to rely on testimony from people who could not plausibly remember what they saw in any kind of detail, evidence that law enforcement was willing to pressure and bribe people, and evidence that so many of these people were just plain scared. 

Of all the witnesses that Doug Evans threatened and coerced to testify against Flowers in the six trials of Mississippi State vs Flowers, every single one of them has recanted. This is only one of the examples of a case built solely on lies, threats, and racism, which permeate our justice system every single day. 

Another key piece to Doug Evans’ case is that Flowers confessed to the murders at Tardy Furniture to two men in two private conversations: Maurice Hawkins and Fredrick Veil. Doug Evans told the jurors that these two men were credible and had no reason to lie. According to Viel, who had stolen his girlfriend’s car, a man named Sheriff Banks met with him and told him, “If you can get some information out of him, that he did the murder, I’ll let you go”. He was sent on a mission to speak to Flowers and make him confess to the murders at Tardy furniture, in exchange for his own freedom. Veil said in an interview with APM Reports, “I didn’t ask him nothing. He didn’t look like no murderer.” After a few days, Sheriff Banks called him back to the office, this time accompanied by District Attorney Doug Evans, who reportedly said, “We gonna to do it this way. We gonna to tell you what to say.” The two men began to tell Veil all about the murders at Tardy Furniture, details and even gruesome pictures of the murder scene. Veil didn’t know “nothing about that case” and “wanted nothing to do with it.” Doug Evans asked him repeatedly, “You want him to get away with this?” 

So Fredrick Veil, District Attorney Doug Evans, and the sheriff put together a story, another piece of Doug Evan’s personalized puzzle to move Flowers one step closer to execution. In 1997, Veil gave a taped confession to Investigator John Johnson, stating that Flowers confessed killing the four people at Tardy Furniture. The same day that Veil gave the statement to John Johnson, in march 1997, Veil got out of jail. Doug Evans also told Fredrick Veil that if he testified against Curtis Flowers’, he would get a 30,000 reward which he could split with the other jailhouse snitch, Maurice Hawkins, who was also going to testify against Flowers. Veil would hold up his part of the bargain, and then, he would get his money. When it came time for Flowers’ first trial, according to Veil, Doug Evans “came to our room and went over what to say…I say what he told me to say.” Doug Evans perfectly formulated his case against Curtis Flowers with lies, bribes, and threats.

Another key witness is Odell Hallmon, who also told investigator John Johnson that Curtis admitted to killing the four people at Tardy Furniture. The attorneys of Curtis’ case argued that “Evans struck a series of backroom deals with … Hallmon.” Hallmon also recanted his statement: “As far as [Curtis] telling me he killed some people, hell, naw, he ain’t ever told me that. That was a lie.” Yet, even so, despite all of the contradictory, misstated, and innocorect evidence, Flowers has still never been aquitted.

How did Curtis Flowers get tried so many times? Prosecutor Doug Evans’ argument relied heavily upon three threads of evidence: the route he allegedly walked on the morning of the murders, the gun that investigators believed he used, and the people he supposedly confessed to in jail. After this verdict, Flowers appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court. He won, and the case was overturned. Each time, the Mississippi Supreme Court found that Doug Evans had engaged in prosecutorial misconduct: he had misstated the facts, he had asked improper quotations not in good faith, and he had even violated the fourteenth amendment to the US Constitution, by striking most black potential jurors. These appeals reversed the death sentences he received from the court decisions where Evans was involved. This meant that Flowers was still awaiting a new trial—he could never be acquitted without one. DA Doug Evans could have dropped charges after realizing that his case was not compelling or strong, but he kept on trying Flowers.

Let’s talk about the common thread throughout all six of Curtis Flowers’ trials. In every single trial, the jury was either all white or mostly white, in a state which is almost 40% black. Why? Because that’s how the prosecutor, Doug Evans, wanted it. Jury selection goes through two phases. In phase one, the judge eliminates all of the potential jurors who cannot be impartial, family or friends of the defendant, coworkers, etc. In the second phase, each side of the courthouse, the prosecutor for the state, and the defendant, can strike potential jurors. A juror can be stricken on account of many things but not race. If one side believes jurors are being stricken because of their race, they can call a Batson violation, and the prosecutor or defense attorney is required to state the reason for the removal of that juror. 

For Flowers’ first trial, Doug Evans struck all the black jurors from the jury pool. Flowers’ lawyers called for a timeout and a Batson violation, but the judge dismissed this. Whenever he was called upon to discuss his reasoning for striking a particular juror, Evans always had alternate reasons. He would claim that he heard from a “confidential informant” that the juror was part of a gang, or they were sleeping in court, or that a woman is against the death penalty, but nearly all of the reasons were “outright fabrications” (Mississippi Supreme Court) to cover up the real reason Doug Evans used all of his peremptory strikes on solely black jurors, race. It is very difficult to catch a Batson violation, or prove that the prosecutor strikes potential jurors because of their race, making it easy for Doug Evans to manipulate the system. However, in the second trial, Doug Evans tried the same thing, but this time, the Batson violation was upheld. The black man who was supposed to be stricken ended up being the only black man on the jury which sentenced Curtis to death for a second time. 

Again, in the third trial, there was only one black person on the jury, and this was only because Doug Evans had already used all fifteen of his peremptory strikes on other prospective black jurors. But again, the judge denied that there was a Batson violation, and Curtis was sentenced to death again. Ray Charles, Curtis’ lawyer for the 3rd and 4th trials says during the experience, as a black man, “I felt like I was back, 50 years in time. I joked one time that I felt so far back that I started looking for Frederick Douglass and talk to him and ask him what he would do [about this] in his old times.” 

In the fifth trial, the only black man on the jury, was hauled out in handcuffs. This time, there was a new judge on the case, Judge Loper who was good friends with District Attorney Doug Evans. After Doug Evans began to strike each black person out of the jury pool, there remained three black people and nine white people. James Bibbs, one of the black men on the jury, described that the case was thin, with no physical evidence: “I didn’t see enough evidence… to convict him.” After hours of deliberation, the jury was split—11 people voting guilty, 1 person, James Bibbs, not voting guilty. Bibbs said, “I was just being truthful about it, that’s all I could do.” The jury declared a mistrial. 

With everyone still in the courtroom, Judge Loper brought Bibbs to the stand and accused him of perjury, a completely false accusation. James Bibbs, the juror, was under arrest. DA Doug Evans decided to press charges on the one man who hung the jury, the one man who disagreed with him, in this high profile death penalty case. Doug Evans brought the case before a grand jury, who indicted James Bibbs on charges of perjury, and would face up to ten years in prison on false pretenses. The transcript of Flowers’ 5th trial would show that there was no misconduct by Bibbs, but nevertheless he spent a whole year in jail before DA Doug Evans dropped the case when he realized that there was no case. Bibbs was threatened and jailed for exercising his right, a disgusting and all too true example of our broken justice system. How can we expect justice to be served when those who express their opinions are oppressed and persecuted?

Finally, in the sixth trial, after receiving another death sentence and appealing to the Mississippi Supreme Court as he did five times before, he lost the case. Finally, he appealed to the Supreme Court as a last ditch effort, who unexpectedly accepted the case. In a 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court Justices reversed the conviction, and concluded that the white District Attorney had violated Curtis’ constitutional rights by intentionally removing African-Americans from the jury at the sixth trial, in 2010. This is the fourth time Curtis has had his murder conviction reversed. Despite this, it is not over for Flowers. Evans still has the power to try Flowers again for a seventh time. The cycle can continue on until Flowers is dead. Had the Supreme Court not accepted this case, Flowers would have set an execution date, revealing how one prosecutor can exploit the justice system to cost a life. 

Not far from Winona, is a town called Money in Mississippi, where a young boy Emmet Till was brutally murdered for “flirting” with a white woman. The two white men responsible for his murder were aquitted, even after they admitted to the murder. Later, the woman claimed that she made up the story. Even after this, justice was never served. The sign marking the spot where Emmet Till’s body was recovered from the river has been vandalized and shot at. This is indicative of the fact that racism is alive all over the country, permeating our justice system.

The case of Curtis Flowers shows the corruption rampant in these courts as well. It was ridiculously easy for Judge Loper and Doug Evans to connive to keep Flowers in jail. Oliver Diaz, a former justice for the state of Mississippi explains, “the courts tend to grant a lot of leeway to prosecutors.” There is no person or legislation in place to prevent someone from being tried multiple times or to keep a prosecutor from exploiting the court system. Every single appeal, Curtis Flowers and his lawyers are the ones pointing out that his trials were not fair. Even when Flowers was successful, even when he proved that Doug Evans had violated the US Constitution, he remained in prison, awaiting another unfair trial. Flowers is the one who pays for the justice system’s mistakes.

Doug Evans, whose gross and racist misconduct has taken 23 years from Flowers’ life, ran for reelection unopposed in 2019, and will serve for 4 more years as District Attorney. He has the power to try Flowers, again and again, however many times he would like. This isn’t double jeopardy which is when you’re tried again after you’ve been acquitted. Curtis Flowers has never been acquitted. There were no consequences for Evans: he didn’t have to pay a fine, he didn’t lose his license to practice law, he didn’t get removed from the case, he was free to deny justice again. 

Our justice system is not merely based on if a person is guilty or not. It is also about politics, race, religion, ethnicity, and class—factors which make it nearly impossible for the marginalized  to achieve justice. To achieve perfect justice is not natural for humans—we all have our own human tendencies, opinions, and feelings. But we must try, as much as possible, to set all opinions aside. 

Ray Charles, one of Flowers’ lawyers, reflects, “all I ever wanted was to get a fair trial.” A just trial is much harder to obtain for minorities who are fighting implicit biases. Doug Evan’s actions in the courtroom highlight the systematic striking of black jurors due to lame excuses, in order to convict a black man again and again. Our institutions suffer from institutionalized racism and discrimination on a more subtle level that is incredibly hard to rid of. Part of the reason Doug Evans and so many others can bypass the rule of law is because racism is so hard to prove. It is scarily easy for a prosecutor to dodge a Batson violation, which shows how difficult it is to remove racism and discrimination from our institutions. Racism is present in police encounters, jury selection, incarceration rates, conviction and sentencing, hate crimes, death penalty disparities, and unfair trials all of which make it impossible for true justice to be served.

The arrest of James Bibbs, the back-handed deals by Doug Evans himself with the jail-house informant, the manipulation and pressuring of the twelve route informants are a testament to how the justice system preys on disadvantaged minorities. It takes advantage of vulnerability and uses it to manipulate reason and evidence.

Flowers’ case highlights the glaring racial inequalities that permeate every aspect of its criminal justice system. It is the human face—a face of color, the face of Curtis Flowers and so many others—which reminds us of the racial injustice of the United States criminal justice system that is the most compelling reason for reform.