I like to listen to podcasts when I run. The stories give my brain something to work on while my legs turn, though sometimes the stories make me angry. For example, recently I listened to the second season of “In the Dark” from American Public Media. It explores the case of Curtis Flowers, a man who has now spent more than 20 years behind bars for the 1996 murder of four people at a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi. The case against Flowers is wholly circumstantial. The witnesses are unreliable. District Attorney Doug Evans has been caught excluding potential jurors based on race, withholding discovery documents, failing to disclose which witnesses received a deal in exchange for testimony, and many other infractions large and small.
Flowers has been tried for the same crime six times, an unprecedented number. Three guilty verdicts were overturned for prosecutorial misconduct and racial discrimination. Two trials ended with hung juries resulting in mistrials. The sixth conviction is under appeal. When overturning one of the convictions, the justices of the Mississippi Supreme Court said the DA’s misconduct was one of the worst cases of racial discrimination they had ever seen. You have to go some ways to be among the most racist offenders in the Mississippi criminal justice system. And yet, despite the overturned convictions and despite the hung juries and despite the blatant racism, Evans remains in charge of prosecuting the case. Flowers remains in Parchman Prison, currently on death row.
Parchman, often referred to as Parchman Farm, opened in the earliest days of the 20th century. The first prisoners were mostly young black men brought in on fabricated or inflated charges. The goal was to gather up strong, able-bodied men and force them to work the surrounding fields—slavery under the guise of justice. It was a terrible place then and it’s a terrible place now. Very few people could do something bad enough to deserve a long stretch at Parchman. There is no evidence Curtis Flowers is one of those people.
I’m drawn to this story and this case for a couple of reasons. First, just after college I lived and worked as a newspaper reporter in a town not too far from the town where the murders took place. It was my first adult job. I covered a capital murder trial during the short year I was there and I got a good view of the inner workings of small town Mississippi law enforcement. It wasn’t pretty. Second, Curtis Flowers and I are just about the same age. When I was 20 and 21 years old I didn’t know what I wanted out of life, but I knew it didn’t exist where I was living. I got out of the Delta and out of Mississippi. Now I wonder if Curtis Flowers dreamed of leaving back then? Or did he feel like he belonged there, like it was his home?
These are the things I think about as I put one foot in front of the other on Denver running trails and sidewalks. My expensive running shoes probably don’t help me run any faster than a cheap pair would, but the employee at the running store says they’ll keep me running longer. I tend to overpronate and these shoes are supposed to protect me from injury. A pair of running shoes was a key piece of evidence in the case against Curtis Flowers. There was a bloody shoe print at the scene. Problem is no one ever found the shoes and no one ever saw Flowers wearing those shoes, despite some trumped up and debunked reports claiming otherwise.
I can’t say for certain whether Curtis Flowers is innocent or guilty, but it is clear that he has never received a fair trial. The investigators and the prosecutors have spent 20 years manufacturing evidence, influencing witnesses, and withholding pertinent information that might have led to a different verdict in any one of the trials. Maybe Flowers is guilty of something or maybe not, but I am confident that Doug Evans and many of the investigators working this case are guilty as hell.
The only hope Flowers has at this point is that his conviction will be overturned due to new evidence not presented at previous trials. It seems remarkable that there would be any new evidence after so many years, but thanks to the reporters of “In the Dark” there is quite a lot. These reporters moved to Mississippi for several years while investigating this case. They went to Friday night football games, to gospel concerts, to potlucks, and to picnics. They ran down the people from the original police reports. They went looking for the murder weapon. They tracked down the truth about those running shoes. They asked questions and got answers. Those answers are now being used to bolster Flowers’ latest appeal.
If Curtis Flowers gets another shot at justice, it will be thanks to these journalists. Journalists are heroes who keep evil men in check and who shine light on injustice. Any person who claims otherwise has never contemplated what it might be like to be at the mercy of a bad man with too much power. And if you haven’t contemplated that possibility, you aren’t paying attention.
I’m going for a run.