Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch drops all charges against Curtis Flowers, a black man who was tried six times for a 1990s quadruple murder.
Curtis Giovanni Flowers is an American man who was tried for murder six times in the State of Mississippi. Four of these trials resulted in convictions, all of which were subsequently overturned on appeal. The other two attempts were deemed to be mistrials. The alleged murder took place at the Tardy Furniture store in 1996, where on the morning of the 16th of July a retired employee of the store found four bodies: owner, Bertha Tardy, and three of her employees. The shooter shot all victims from close range. Curtis Flowers was “suspected” as he had been fired two weeks earlier before the murder took place and was reported to owe $30 in cash advance for his payment to Bertha Tardy. Besides, certain witnesses reported seeing Curtis near the shop on the morning of the shootings. Although the authorities recovered no gun, the bullets at the crime scene were of the same calibre as the gun which had been recently stolen from Curtis’ uncle’s car the same day as the murders. Based on circumstantial evidence, Curtis was charged with murder for the four.
The Six Trials
Curtis was prosecuted by Mississippi District Attorney (D.A.) Doug Evans on all six trials; the prosecutor sought the death penalty in each trial. The first three trials (1997, 1999, 2004) all resulted in convictions, but which were overturned on appeal by the Mississippi Supreme Court. The court overturned the first two trials because of prosecutorial misconduct. The third trial was overturned as D.A. Doug Evans was found to have discriminated against black jurors during jury selection. The fourth trial (2007) and fifth trial (2008) ended in hung juries – the jury was not able to determine a verdict even after extended deliberation. Lastly, in the sixth trial (2010) Curtis was convicted. However, the subsequent appeal failed. He was put on death row.
1st U.S. Supreme Court Ruling
In June 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court included Flowers’ case among three cases remanded to lower courts to review on racial bias grounds by the prosecution in jury selection. In late 2017, the Mississippi Supreme Court renewed its prior determination and upheld Curtis’ conviction and death sentence.
2nd U.S. Supreme Court Ruling
Due to the media attention surrounding the high-profile case, American Public Media podcast In the Dark in 2018 began reporting Curtis’ issue. An in-depth investigation raised severe doubts on the legitimacy of the claim against Curtis, which included several retracted confessions by witnesses, potential misconduct from the prosecutor, and the disappearance of the crime weapon after it had been turned over to the police.
Evidence from the In the Dark investigations assisted Curtis’ lawyers to seek a writ of certiorari on the ground of a Batson violation (prosecutor’s dismissal of jurors without stating a valid cause) in an attempt to overturn the sixth trial conviction by the U.S. Supreme Court. On the 2nd of November 2018, the writ was granted. In March 2019, oral arguments were heard with Amicus briefs being filed by the Magnolia Bar Association, the Mississippi Centre for Justice, and the Innocence Project New Orleans. In June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court in Flowers v Mississippi overturned Flowers’ sixth conviction in a vote of 7-2.
Leading the majority decision, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that “[t]he state’s relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals strongly suggests that the state wanted to try Curtis before a jury with as few black jurors as possible, and ideally before an all-white jury.” He added that “Equal justice under law requires a criminal trial free of racial discrimination in the jury selection process.”
Alternatively, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented. Justice Thomas stated that the majority ruling distorted the trial court record. He added that the court’s other rulings about striking jurors based on race were a misguided attempt to remedy a general societal wrong by regulating how lawyers can strike jurors. Justice Gorsuch also expressed dissent except on the point that the court’s line of cases about dealing with racial prejudice in jury selection.
The 7th Trial Will Not Happen
Despite the decision, Curtis was detained in prison pending decisions from prosecutors and the local court on any future prosecution. Flowers’ legal team petitioned for the charges to be dismissed, or failing that, for bail to be granted and for D.A. Doug Evans to be removed from any role in the prosecution, citing the multiple findings of prosecutorial misconduct.
In December 2019, Judge Loper sitting in the 5th U.S. District Court of Mississippi granted Curtis a bail for $250,000, of which he was required to deposit only 10 per cent. However, he was restricted to his residence and needed to wear an ankle monitor. Judge Loper noted, while deliberating his decision, several of the prosecution’s key witnesses had recanted. Also, exculpatory evidence had been uncovered, as well as alternative suspects, seemingly leaving the prosecution with a weaker case than in the previous trials.
Later in January 2020, D.A. Doug Evans recused himself from the case and asked the presiding judge to turn over prosecution to the Mississippi District Attorney General’s office. On the 4th of September 2020, District Attorney General Lynn Fitch stated that the State would not pursue the seventh trial against Flowers. She said that it would be nearly impossible to convict Flowers due to the lack of any living witnesses who had not recanted or otherwise rendered their testimony unusable due to conflicting statements, the identification of alternative suspects, and new potentially exculpatory evidence. The case was dismissed without prejudice, barring any future prosecutions, and thus releasing Curtis Flowers and bringing the case to a formal conclusion.
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