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In Curtis Flowers case, race could be a matter of life or death

Curtis Flowers has been tried six times for the murder of four people killed in a Mississippi furniture store in 1996. The case is the subject of the second season American Public Media’s “In the Dark” podcast. Now the Supreme Court is considering whether the district attorney prosecuting Flowers illegally made juror selections based on race. William Brangham talks to APM’s Madeleine Baran.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. Supreme Court today heard a case examining whether a prosecutor in Mississippi used race to illegally shape a jury.

    It centers on the trials of Curtis Flowers for the murders of four people.

    As William Brangham reports, a popular podcast shed new light on troubling parts of this case.

  • William Brangham:

    Curtis Flowers has been tried, not once, but six times for these murders, where four people in Winona, Mississippi, were killed in a furniture store.

    The case against Flowers is the subject of intense scrutiny now, especially since it became the subject of an investigative podcast, season two of American Public Media's "In the Dark."

    Host Madeleine Baran and her reporting team moved to Mississippi to investigate this 20-year-old case. And several key elements of the case against Flowers, evidence cited by district attorney Doug Evans, began to unravel upon closer examination.

    That included a jailhouse witness recanting.

  • Madeleine Baran:

    By this point, I had already looked at every other piece of major evidence in the case against Curtis Flowers, the route, the gun, the other two snitches. None of it had held up to scrutiny.

    And now all that was left was this one story, this one confession. And then from his cell in Parchman prison, on a spotty cell phone connection, from underneath his tent, Odell Hallmon told Samara that story was a lie.

  • Odell Hallmon:

    Telling me he killed some people? Hell no, he ain't never told me that. That was a lie.

  • William Brangham:

    DA Doug Evans has been pursuing the death penalty for Flowers. But Flowers' lawyers argue Evans hand-picked white jurors to try and convict him.

  • Madeleine Baran:

    Doug Evans had used his strikes to strike one white prospective juror and five black prospective jurors.

    When the trial began later that day, Curtis Flowers looked over at a jury box that was almost entirely white, this in a county that was almost 50 percent black. And that jury listened to seven days of testimony, and then they deliberated for just 29 minutes. They convicted Curtis Flowers and they sentenced him to death.

  • William Brangham:

    Flowers' sixth appeal, challenging the constitutionality of this jury selection, is what reached the Supreme Court today.

    Host and lead reporter of "In the Dark," Madeleine Baran, was at the court this morning, and she joins me now.

    Welcome.

  • Madeleine Baran:

    Thanks for having me.

  • William Brangham:

    So, you know this case just about as well as anybody out there.

    But for people who have not been listening to the podcast, tell us, who is Curtis Flowers, and why has he been behind bars for so long?

  • Madeleine Baran:

    So, Curtis Flowers is a man who grew up in this small town, Winona, Mississippi.

    And he had a pretty unremarkable life, until 1996, when four people were shot in the head in the small-town furniture store. It was a store that Curtis had worked out for a few days earlier that summer. And it didn't take long for law enforcement to narrow in on Curtis as its top suspect, even though Curtis didn't have a criminal record, even though nobody witnessed the murders, there was no DNA, no slam-dunk evidence.

    But Curtis was the one that they thought did it, and they built a case against them, based on largely circumstantial evidence.

  • William Brangham:

    So, the evidence was really that thin against him?

  • Madeleine Baran:

    Thin, but enough to convince some jurors, I mean, convince jurors for many years.

    But when we looked at the evidence, the evidence didn't hold up to scrutiny. Like you hear in the podcast, everything from the forensic science in the case, to the jailhouse informants, to the witnesses who say they saw Curtis not killing anybody, but walking around town that day on his way to or from the murders, none of it held up.

  • William Brangham:

    So, today, the Supreme Court looked at one slice of this case. They're not looking, we should say, at whether or not Curtis is guilty or not guilty of the murders.

    They're looking at whether or not this district attorney basically stacked the deck for his jury in a racist fashion.

    What is the — what is his — what is Curtis Flowers lawyers' argument?

  • Madeleine Baran:

    So, they say, look, when you look at these six trials of Curtis Flowers, you see one thing that is almost always the same. You see a jury that is either all white or mostly white every time.

    And the defense says, it didn't get that way by chance, that that was a strategy by the prosecutor, in this case, the elected district attorney, Doug Evans. And what they said Evans was doing was that Evans was intentionally striking African-Americans from the jury because of their race.

    And you cannot do that. That's against the Constitution. The court has been very clear on that.

  • William Brangham:

    You can strike people for a whole bunch of reasons.

  • Madeleine Baran:

    Exactly.

  • William Brangham:

    But…

  • Madeleine Baran:

    You can strike them for almost any reason at all.

    You cannot strike them, however, because of their race. That's against the 14th Amendment. And so that's what Curtis' lawyers were at the court today trying to say, that is exactly what happened in this case.

    And what they have said, not just, look, this is what happened in Curtis' latest trial, but they pointed out the fact that the court has actually caught the same district attorney twice before in the Flowers trials violating the Constitution in this exact same way. It happened in Curtis' second trial, and it happened in his third trial.

    So they're saying, look, if you're trying to determine whether this prosecutor is credible, you should consider his record.

    The state, on the other hand, says, Doug Evans has valid reasons for striking these African-Americans from this jury and this trial.

  • William Brangham:

    It had nothing to do with race.

  • Madeleine Baran:

    Exactly.

    One of the arguments is, one of these jurors, some of these jurors knew the defendant's family. They had doubts about the death penalty and things like that. So that's the two sides basically as it breaks down.

    But it really was interesting to see how this unfolded at the court.

  • William Brangham:

    And how did it? How did the justices seem to be leaning?

  • Madeleine Baran:

    Well, very favorable to Flowers, I would say overall.

    Interestingly enough, the newest justice, Justice Kavanaugh, was very outspoken during oral arguments about the importance of fair trials and avoiding racial discrimination in jury selection. He talked about how it doesn't just matter for the defendant, to make sure the defendant gets a fair trial, but he also talked about how for a community this is important, that if we're going to trust our criminal justice system, we need to make sure that we do not have racism in jury selection.

    So he kind of carried forth on it, a little unexpectedly.

  • William Brangham:

    Interesting.

    In your reporting — and, again, this is separate from what was in the trial — you looked at Doug Evans' — the district attorney, his record in jury cases outside the Flowers case.

    Explain how you examined that and what you found.

  • Madeleine Baran:

    Well, we wanted to see, does this pattern hold up across all of his trials, not just the Flowers trials?

    So he had been the DA since 1992. So what we did was, we went about trying to locate through all these different courthouses in North Central Mississippi these trial transcripts, jury lists. So we had a reporter who spent months just literally hauling a scanner in these courthouses, scanning over 100,000 documents, pages of documents.

    Then our data reporter analyzed those records to come up with one very important sentence, which is, when we look at all these trials in Doug Evans' district since he became DA in 1992, based on the records we found, he and his office were striking black people from juries at nearly four-and-a-half times the rate that they were striking white people, four-and-a-half times the rate.

    And this is something that you wouldn't be able to find out by just going to the courthouse. It really took almost a year of work.

  • William Brangham:

    So let's say Curtis Flowers wins this appeal before the Supreme Court. What happens then?

  • Madeleine Baran:

    Well, interestingly enough, that is not the end of the story, because the prosecutor would get the chance to decide whether to try this case again.

  • William Brangham:

    The same prosecutor?

  • Madeleine Baran:

    Same prosecutor, which would be a seventh trial.

  • William Brangham:

    The podcast is "In the Dark."

    Madeleine Baran, thank you so much.

  • Madeleine Baran:

    Thank you.

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