'In The Dark' Examines Death Row Case Of Curtis Flowers
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A Mississippi man has a rare distinction. He's been put on trial for the same crime six times. Again and again, he was convicted of murder. Again and again, the conviction was thrown out. And then, he was tried again. The story of Curtis Flowers drew the attention of Madeleine Baran, who made his story the focus of the podcast In The Dark from APM Reports.
MADELEINE BARAN: He was 26 years old when the crimes happened. He had a girlfriend. He was living with her and her children. He sung in a gospel group with his father, and he did work at the furniture store. So the prosecution's case is built on this idea that Curtis Flowers worked at this furniture store, Tardy Furniture, and he was let go, and he was so angry by that that about two weeks later, he woke up early, he walked across town, stole a gun from a car, walked over to Tardy Furniture and killed everybody inside.
INSKEEP: It seemed like a strong case - at least to the juries that found Curtis Flowers guilty. But the Mississippi Supreme Court repeatedly found problems with the prosecution, and that's how the convictions were overturned, again and again. Curtis Flowers is black. Nearly all the jurors who judged him were white, even though it was a racially mixed community. Reporters for the podcast found that to be a pattern in Winona, Miss. Here's data reporter Will Craft.
WILL CRAFT: We found race data for jurors in 225 trials, and we found that there - over a 26-year period, there was a history of removing black potential jurors at a much higher rate than white potential jurors.
INSKEEP: Black residents were struck from sitting on juries, thrown out by the prosecution, 4 1/2 times more often than white residents. Reporter Madeleine Baran found other flaws in the case.
BARAN: The interesting thing about that theory is that Curtis Flowers only worked at that store for three days, a total of 18 hours. And so there is, you know, a question as to whether or not in that time period you could really become that angry to commit a quadruple murder.
INSKEEP: I can hear why you'd be skeptical about that story. But didn't prosecutors produce people that Curtis Flowers shared cells with in prison who said that he confessed to the crime?
BARAN: Right. So this case is built on mostly circumstantial evidence with the exception of these jailhouse informants. When Curtis was arrested, he's put in this jail cell. And what ends up happening is that two people in that jail cell end up testifying at trial in the first trial that Curtis Flowers confessed to them. Interestingly enough, both of those men later said that story is not true. Both of them said they were motivated by getting out of jail, getting reduced sentences. And when both of those informants went away after the first trial, the DA, Doug Evans, found a new person, a man named Odell Hallmon, who now said, well, Curtis actually confessed to me, too. And so that has been the only piece of direct evidence against Curtis Flowers for the past several trials. And we reached Odell in prison, and he told us that actually he made up that story, that that story was not true.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ODELL HALLMON: For years (ph), you're telling me he killed some people. Hell, no. He ain't never told me that. That was a lie.
BARAN: He testified in four trials, the last four trials, including the current trial, the sixth trial that resulted in the death sentence, putting Curtis on death row.
INSKEEP: What about Doug Evans, the district attorney? When you met him, as you finally did, what did it feel like?
BARAN: Well, I was just hoping that he would talk to us at all because he really has not said almost anything about this case even though it's been going on for more than 20 years. So I was grateful that he did talk to me for - it ended up being just about 11 minutes. And I guess to me, one of the things that was striking was that he, both on the one hand, said he was certain that Curtis was guilty. On the other hand, when I asked him, you know, are your witnesses - do you believe all your witnesses are telling the truth, which seems like a very basic question, he would not answer it. And he kept wanting to talk off the record, and he said things like, you know, people down here tend to not ask these kinds of questions. So I think the picture that was painted for me in this interview was he has not really had to explain his actions in these trials very often, if ever before.
INSKEEP: When I listen to his voice, he sounds mild. He sounds polite, a little bit annoyed, but he doesn't sound like an evil person, just listening to the tone of voice.
BARAN: Yeah. And, I mean, for us, you know, as reporters, it's - what's important is what the actions are of the people that we're reporting on. So when you look at our jury analysis where he's striking black people off his jury at a rate 4 1/2 times the rate of white potential jurors, you know, to us, that's more significant than how - you know, than really any demeanor questions. I mean, what's interesting, also, he had a casual air about him. He wasn't, you know, confrontational. He wasn't angry. But what he was doing in the interview was just sort of casually accusing the jurors of lying to get on the jury, the ones that didn't vote to convict Curtis because there have been two mistrials.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DOUG EVANS: Any juror that I have heard, except the ones that were lying to get on the jury, I haven't seen one yet that tried to say in any way that the evidence was not strong.
BARAN: So the tone was casual, but yet what he was saying was actually quite serious.
INSKEEP: So having spent a lot of time in a relatively small Mississippi town investigating a controversial subject like this, how have people received you? And what have you heard from anyone you met since the podcast has started coming out?
BARAN: So it really depended - we were received very warmly in some cases and very much not in others. I mean, the town is very racially divided on the issue of whether Curtis Flowers is guilty or whether the prosecutor has done the right thing. So, you know, amongst black residents of Winona, we were very much by and large welcomed. Amongst white residents of Winona, some were welcoming and interested in what we had to do; others definitely not. So it really depended - it broke down largely on racial lines - not entirely, though.
INSKEEP: Have you become, in a way, advocacy journalists? You're trying to get this man out of prison, Curtis Flowers.
BARAN: I don't think that's our goal. I mean, that's something that Curtis and his lawyers are trying to do. For us as reporters, we're here to look at the people in power and look at the systems in place that raise questions about whether or not the criminal justice system is fair, whether it is just using facts. So what that results in is not our place to say. But certainly, in this case, what we've shown is that the evidence against Curtis Flowers is weak. So this becomes a question now for the courts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH LOUISE'S "LATE SUMMER SEED COLLECTION")
INSKEEP: That was Madeleine Baran, lead reporter for an APM Reports podcast called In The Dark. A new episode is out today.
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