Curtis Flowers will be free for the first time in more than two decades as prosecutors decide whether to try the quadruple murder case against him for a seventh time.
For more than two decades, Curtis Flowers has returned over and over again to a court in Mississippi to face prosecution for the brutal killings of four people in a small-town furniture store where he once worked.
In the first three trials, Flowers, a black man, was found guilty by nearly all-white juries. Each of those convictions was overturned by the state Supreme Court. In the fourth and fifth trials, juries failed to reach verdicts.
And in the sixth and most recent trial, Flowers was found guilty and sentenced to death. This time, his appeals ascended to the US Supreme Court, and again the conviction was tossed.
On Monday, after chastising prosecutors for not resolving the case that Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote was "likely one of a kind," a judge granted Flowers bail, offering him the gift of freedom for the first time in 23 years.
It was a long-awaited victory in a case that has attracted global attention, consumed much of Flowers' adult life and tested the limits of his family's hope.
"Welcome home!" his daughter, Crystal Ghoston, said jubilantly outside the courthouse, imagining her reunion with her father. She was 3 years old when he was arrested and was raised by an aunt.
As he set bail at US$250,000, Judge Joseph H. Loper Jr. warned prosecutors — who have neither decided whether to try the case for the seventh time nor responded to motions filed by defense lawyers — that if their inaction continued, "the state of Mississippi will reap the whirlwind."
He also noted the absence of Doug Evans, the white district attorney who has tried the case six times. "I don't know why he's not here," Loper said. "I expected him to be here."
Last month, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Evans, accusing him of racial discrimination through "a practice of striking black jurors with peremptory challenges at an extraordinary rate." The lawsuit claims that Evans and his prosecutors, since 1992, have used peremptory strikes against black jurors 4.4 times more frequently than with white jurors.
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The latest conviction against Flowers was thrown out after the US Supreme Court ruled that Evans had violated Flowers' constitutional rights by pushing to keep black jurors off the panels deciding his fate. (In the six trials for Flowers, 61 of the 72 jurors were white.)
In the majority opinion, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote, "Equal justice under law requires a criminal trial free of racial discrimination in the jury selection process." By pursuing a "relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals," Kavanaugh wrote, the state wanted to try Flowers "ideally before an all-white jury."
The case attracted attention far beyond Mississippi as it fit into a broader conversation about the influence of race in the criminal justice system, with a white prosecutor accused of consistently keeping black jurors off panels deciding the fate of an African American defendant in a capital murder case.
It also was the season-long focus of a podcast that chipped away at key elements of the prosecution's arguments and was cited by Flowers' lawyers in court.
"This case is unprecedented in the history of the American legal system," Rob McDuff, a lawyer for Flowers, said as he laid out his arguments in court Monday.
The quadruple murder and robbery of the Tardy Furniture store in July 1996 rattled Winona, a small town about a two-hour drive from Memphis. In the many years since, it continues to hold a tight grip on the community and its 5,000 residents.
On Monday, the courtroom was packed with relatives of both Flowers and the victims, along with many residents who had followed the case. ("I should have known it was going to be a social event," one woman in the gallery leaned in to tell a friend.)
One of the victims was Bertha Tardy, the 59-year-old owner of the store and a prominent resident who wrote a regular column for The Winona Times. The other three who were killed were employees: Carmen Rigby, 45, who had worked at the store for two decades; Robert Golden, 42, who had a second job at the store in addition to a full-time job to support his family; and Derrick Stewart, 16, who had been hired part time for his first job.
At his six trials, prosecutors described Flowers, now 49, as a disgruntled former employee who was angry because he had been fired. He was arrested several months after the slayings.
The prosecution relied on shoe prints taken from the scene, as well as testimony that was later undermined by the reporting for the podcast, "In the Dark," which was produced by American Public Media. (The podcast won a George Polk award, a prestigious journalism prize, for its work about the case.)
In court on Monday, McDuff played a recording of an interview with Odell Hallmon, a witness who later recanted his testimony that Flowers had confessed to the murders. "Everything was all make-believe," Hallmon said in the interview.
McDuff said that Hallmon caught breaks from prosecutors, with cases apparently dropped and lighter punishments, after cooperating with them.
"We don't have to prove he is innocent today," McDuff said of Flowers. "Though, I think we can if we had a trial."
The prosecution countered that the change in Hallmon's testimony, and the testimony of other witnesses who have since recanted, did not entirely undercut its case.
"There is more proof than just these people's statements," William Adam Hopper, an assistant district attorney, told the judge, adding that investigators had found gunpowder residue on Flowers' hands and cash at his home. Cash was missing from the furniture store.
He also had a motivation to carry out the shooting, Hopper said. "He had been let go, his check docked," he said, adding that Flowers "was the only suspect."
But someone else might also have been under suspicion, said Loper, who noted that prosecutors now face tougher prospects if they decide to try the case again.
The case, Loper said, has become "wholly a circumstantial evidence case that places a higher burden on the prosecution."
Relatives of the victims and their supporters declined to talk to a reporter on Monday, beyond expressing disappointment. "They let us down, didn't they?" one man said.
In contrast, some of Flowers' relatives began crying or simply stood still, in shock. "It's been a while," his father, Archie Flowers, said just after the hearing.
"Excuse me," he added as he walked away from reporters. "I'm about to cry.
Family and friends acknowledged that the case was not over. If prosecuted for a seventh time — and found guilty a fifth time — Flowers could return to prison.
But on Monday, with an anonymous donor posting Flowers' bail, they chose to savour the moment they had feared would never come.
"Thank you, Jesus!" said Monkra Small, who helped raise Flowers' daughter while her father was incarcerated.
"It hasn't been fair from Day 1," she said, tears streaming down her face. "But I'm so happy. I have so much joy in my soul."
Written by: Rick Rojas
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