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How Curtis Flowers Was Tried 6 Times for the Same Killings and Sent to Prison for 23 Years

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For the first time in decades, Curtis Flowers spent the holidays with his family in Mississippi and not behind bars on death row for four execution-style murders he swears he didn't commit.

He was released on bail in December after 23 years in prison. He has been tried six times for the same killings, and twice sentenced to the death penalty. Two trials ended with hung juries. Three trials were overturned on appeal, as was the last one, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In June, the high court struck down Flowers' latest conviction for capital murder, ruling District Attorney Doug Evans, whose jurisdiction covers seven rural counties, engaged in racial discrimination by excluding black people from the juries deliberating Flowers' fate. Evans prosecuted Flowers, who is black, in all six trials.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in an opinion representing the court's 7-2 decision, wrote that for more than 20 years, Evans engaged in a "relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals" while pursuing panels of all-white jurors. Kavanaugh noted Evans had removed 41 of 42 prospective black jurors over the six trials. "We cannot ignore that history," the justice said.

In November, four black plaintiffs and the NAACP sued Evans in federal court, seeking an injunction against his "odious practice" of "racially discriminatory jury selection."

Flowers, 49, could be tried yet again. The original grand jury indictment against him still stands. He is confined to house arrest and must wear an ankle monitor while prosecutors determine whether to refile charges against him.

Prosecutorial misconduct was cited in each of the appellate rulings. Nevertheless, Evans persisted, refiling charges after every trial ultimately went up in flames.

Curtis Flowers was in prison for 23 years.

Curtis Flowers' prison mug shot. Mississippi Dept. of Corrections

Evans has not commented publicly on the racial discrimination rulings. But reporters behind the podcast series "In the Dark," which devoted its second season to Flowers' case, approached the prosecutor as he ate lunch earlier this year at a Mexican restaurant in Kosciusko. Evans said he disagreed with the U.S. Supreme Court decision. "There's no question about (Flowers') guilt. There never has been," he said. "Courts are just like me and you. Everybody's got opinions."

Asked about the court's assertion that he was biased against black jurors, Evans replied, "if they said that, that is not true." 

The Killings and the State's Case

Flowers had no criminal record when he was arrested in 1996 for shooting to death four employees inside a furniture store in the small, racially divided town of Winona.

The killings stunned the northern Mississippi enclave of 4,500 residents.

Curtis Flowers  was released on bail in December.

Curtis Flowers speaking to supporters after he was released on bail. Facebook

The Tardy Furniture store had been around since World War II. Owner, Bertha Tardy, 59, had gone to interior design school, was active in the local business community and was a devout Christian.

Carmen Rigby, 45, had worked at the store for more than 20 years, keeping the books, making sales and helping to manage the business. She ran her church's day care.

Robert Golden, 42, was a delivery man with two sons, to whom he was devoted. He was killed on what was his first day at work.

Derrick "Bobo" Stewart, 16, had recently started a summer job there loading furniture onto trucks. He loved high school baseball and Guns N' Roses.

All four were shot in the back of the head inside the showroom packed with recliners, couches, mattresses and bed frames. They fell to the linoleum floor and stayed there. The July murders would be blamed on Curtis Giovanni Flowers, who worked at the shop for three days. Prosecutor Evans claimed he killed Tardy because she had fired him and docked his pay. The others were murdered to eliminate witnesses, Evans said.

Flowers was 26 at the time and lived with his girlfriend. He had no criminal record, regularly attended church and sang in a gospel group with his father. He told investigators he didn't know he had been fired, and that he had simply stopped going to work after his pay was docked over damaged merchandise.

Investigators found spent bullets, but no gun at the crime scene. There were bloody shoe prints that didn't match any of the victims' footwear. There were no witnesses, even though the shootings occurred downtown in broad daylight. There were coins in the cash register, but no bills. The safe was unlocked, but didn't appear to have been rifled. 

Tardy's handbag sat next to her desk, but hadn't been disturbed. Winona's mayor told a local reporter investigators "don't have any clue as to what took place or why. Everybody's pretty well in shock. Things like this don't happen in places like Winona."

Months passed before Flowers was arrested, and Evans built the state's case largely on witnesses who said they saw him walking downtown around the time of the killings, a gun that was never found, and the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said Flowers confessed to him that he had killed the victims. 

The informant, who had a long history of violent crime convictions, would later recant his testimony in a subsequent trial of Flowers, and then testify in yet another trial that he had lied when he recanted on the stand. He told journalists for "In the Dark" that he received favorable treatment from prosecutors in exchange for implicating Flowers.

The witnesses later recanted or amended their statements to say they were uncertain as to whether they'd seen Flowers walking around town at the time of the killings.

"In the Dark" also reviewed more than 100,000 pages of records and deduced that potential black jurors were 4.4 times more likely to be removed than potential white jurors.

A childhood photo of Curtis Flowers that was in his case file.

This childhood photo of Curtis Flowers was in his case file. Facebook/"In the Dark"

The concept of double jeopardy, laid down by the Fifth Amendment, does not apply to Flowers because he was never acquitted of the murders. If he had been, the case would have been dropped. But the decision to retry a case rests solely with the local prosecutor and Evans has said all along he adamantly believes Flowers is guilty.

In December, when Flowers was finally granted bail, defense attorney Rob McDuff of the Mississippi Center for Justice said his client had spent more than two decades behind bars "without a lawful conviction too justify his incarceration." All the while, Evans pondered whether to try him a seventh time.

Flowers' bond was posted by an anonymous donor, McDuff said.

"Given the evidence of his innocence that continues to surface as time goes by, as well as his excellent prison conduct and the fact that the has no criminal record, bail was required by law under the unusual circumstances of this case," McDuff said.

The first jury to convict Flowers was all white, while the second and third each had one black panelist. In the fourth and fifth trials, after Evans ran out of peremptory strikes, meaning he could not bounce a prospective juror for no stated reason, there were more black jurors on the panels. Both of those trials ended in hung juries. At his sixth trial, 11 of the jurors were white.

The racial makeup of Winona is nearly evenly divided between whites and blacks.

"The numbers speak loudly," Kavanaugh wrote in the high court's decision. "Over the course of the first four trials, there were 36 black prospective jurors against whom the State could have exercised a peremptory strike. The State tried to strike all 36."

Flowers' attorney expressed exasperation at the thought Evans could retry his client's case. "This has been a long and costly process," McDuff said. "There is no need to continue wasting taxpayer money on this misguided prosecution that has been plagued by misconduct and racial discrimination."

Outside the courthouse, Flowers' 26-year-old daughter, Crystal Ghoston, waited to hug her father, she told reporters. When he was arrested, she was 3 years old.

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