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Curtis Flowers

Other Mississippi exonerations
On September 4, 2020, the Montgomery County, Mississippi District Attorney’s Office dismissed the capital murder charges against Curtis Flowers, ending a widely-publicized case that saw Flowers go to trial six different times, four of which ended in conviction and all of which were reversed. There were two mistrials.

The dismissal left the 1996 quadruple murders at a Winona, Mississippi furniture store officially unsolved.

The case was the subject of a riveting podcast, “In the Dark,” by American Public Media that detailed how jailhouse informants who said Flowers confessed to them behind bars had recanted, as did witnesses who claimed to see Flowers on the day of the crime. Most prominently, the podcast detailed how District Attorney Doug Evans, who is white, was found to have purposely eliminated Black men and women as prospective jurors in violation of federal law.

All of Flowers's trials took place outside of Montgomery County, which was a little over 50 percent white, and held in either Harrison or Lee Counties, where the white population was more than 70 percent.

In June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Flowers’s convictions for the four murders a fourth and final time by a vote of 7-2. Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion and noted that in the trials, Evans used 41 of his 45 peremptory challenges to exclude Black prospective jurors. The court held that Evans had violated Batson v. Kentucky, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a prosecutor’s use of a peremptory challenge—the dismissal of prospective jurors without requiring a reason for doing so—could not be used to exclude jurors solely on the basis of their race.

“The state’s relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals strongly suggests that the state wanted to try Flowers before a jury with as few black jurors as possible, and ideally before an all-white jury,” Kavanaugh wrote, adding: “We cannot ignore that history.”

The murders occurred on the morning of July 16, 1996 at Tardy Furniture Company, a store that had been a fixture for decades in Winona, a city of about 5,800 situated about 160 miles south of Memphis. Sam Jones Jr., a retired Tardy employee, later said that 59-year-old Bertha Tardy, the store owner, called him around 9 a.m. and asked him to come in because she wanted him to help train two new employees—16-year-old Derrick “Bo Bo” Stewart and 42-year-old Robert Golden.

When Jones arrived about an hour later, he found Tardy, Stewart, Golden and another employee, 45-year-old Carmen Rigby all had been shot. Stewart was still alive. The others were dead. Stewart was rushed to the hospital, but on July 22, he died as well.

By that time, police had questioned 26-year-old Curtis Flowers, who had recently worked at the store. Flowers had caused several hundred dollar’s worth of damage to some batteries he was transporting and was told the cost would come out of his salary. He had left and did not return to the job.

His hands were tested for gunshot residue and a particle of residue was found. He was released after he denied any involvement in the crime. Police took his fingerprints, but his prints were not found at the scene. Police took his clothes and sent the items to the state police crime lab for DNA tests, but no evidence linking him to the crime was discovered.

Police found five shell casings that were determined to have come from a .380-caliber semi-automatic pistol. Doyle Simpson, who was Flowers’s uncle, came under suspicion when he reported that a pistol of that type and caliber had been stolen from the glove compartment of his car in the parking lot of the factory where he worked.

In addition to the shell casings, police found two spent bullets, two bullet fragments, and one live bullet. Three footprints in blood were later determined to have been left by size 10½ Fila gym shoes. There was no paper money—only change—in the cash drawer.

Six days after the murders, Simpson took a polygraph examination. According to police, Simpson was found to be deceptive when he said his gun had been stolen from his car and when he said he knew nothing about the murders. He lied about where he got the gun and, police later learned, he called his brother and asked him to falsely tell police if they asked that he sold the gun to Simpson. The brother refused, however. When Simpson said he practiced shooting the gun at a rural location, a detective went there and, using his knife, pried a spent slug from a post.

Ultimately, the Mississippi state police crime lab reported that it could not connect the spent slug from the post to the bullets found at the crime scene. However, police sought out David Balash, a retired Michigan State Police firearms expert, who would later testify that he determined that the bullet from the post—which was fired by Simpson’s gun—had markings similar to the bullets recovered from the crime scene.

In August 1996, detectives, led by the District Attorney’s investigator John Johnson, questioned Simpson and told him that his gun had fired the bullets recovered from the crime scene. He denied involvement and maintained the gun had been stolen from his car that morning.

Detectives also focused on Flowers, who had moved to Plano, Texas to begin a new job. From the home of Flowers’s girlfriend, Connie Moore, where he had been living, police recovered a box for the same size 10½ Fila shoes.

Detectives began questioning people—some of whom would later say they believed they were going to be arrested unless they cooperated and some who would say that portions or all of a $30,000 reward were dangled before them. Ultimately, police got statements from a dozen witnesses who said they saw Flowers in various locations on the streets of Winona on the morning of the crime.

Based on these statements, the prosecution developed a scenario—that Flowers, angry over the loss of his job at the furniture store, walked across town on the day of the crime to the parking lot where he stole Simpson’s gun, and then walked home. He then walked back across town, shot and killed the four victims, robbed the cash register, and finally walked back home.

On January 13, 1997, police arrested Flowers in Plano and brought him back to Montgomery County where he was charged with four counts of capital murder. He was named in four separate indictments. A defense motion to consolidate the cases was denied.

Because of the extensive media coverage, one of the trials was moved from Montgomery County to Lee County. This trial was only for the murder of Bertha Tardy—the prosecution planned later trials for the other victims. Flowers went to trial in October 1997 before an all-white jury. District Attorney Evans used all of his peremptory challenges to strike prospective Black jurors.

By that time, the prosecution had two more witnesses. Frederick Veal and Maurice Hawkins both testified that Flowers admitted committing the crime to them while they were cellmates when Flowers was awaiting trial. Veal said Flowers confessed to the murders and to taking money from the store while they were playing dominoes. Hawkins said the confession came while they were playing solitaire.

Patricia Hallman, a neighbor of Flowers, testified that at about 7:30 a.m. on the morning of the crime, she saw him going into his house in a rage. Other witnesses testified they saw him at various points that morning. Catherine Snow testified that she saw Flowers leaning against a car outside the Angelica Garment Factory, where Doyle Simpson worked and where he said someone stole his gun from his unlocked car.

Clemmie Fleming testified that she got a ride from Roy Harris to go to the furniture store about 10 a.m. to make a payment on her bill. However, she said she didn’t go in because she was pregnant and feeling sick, so she asked Harris to drive her home. She said that she saw Flowers running away from the store. Harris testified that he did see someone running and that Fleming had said it was Flowers.

Jack Matthews, an investigator for the Mississippi State Highway Patrol, testified that based on a ledger sheet found at Tardy’s, approximately $287 was missing from the cash drawer. The prosecution theory was that the $255 found in Flowers’s girlfriend’s home was from the furniture store.

A forensic analyst who analyzed the gunshot residue test conducted on Flowers testified that the residue was from handling a gun “to the exclusion of all other environmental sources.”

Balash, the firearms expert, testified that he was positive that the bullets recovered from the scene had been fired from Simpson’s gun based on his comparison with the bullet pried from Simpson’s target practice post. “It has to be 100 percent or I will not offer that opinion,” Balash testified.

Flowers’s girlfriend, Connie Moore, testified that she had purchased the box of size 10½ Fila shoes for her son around November 1995. She said her son had gone to live with his father in January 1996 and took the shoes with him.

Flowers testified that he began working for Bertha Tardy sometime in early July. He had been told when he was hired that any damages he caused would come out of his paycheck. He said that he had picked up some batteries and they fell out of the truck while he was driving. When he told Tardy about it, she said that that if they could not work out anything about the damages, it would come out of his check. He said he had not yet received a check, but had previously been advanced $30. Flowers said he did not go back to work after July 3, but he did call in and Tardy told him she had hired someone else.

Flowers said that on the day of the crime, he got up around 9 a.m. and while cooking, cut his hand on a can of shortening. He said he went to his sister’s house to get a bandage and then went to a convenience store to buy beer and chips.

Flowers denied committing the crime. He denied stealing the gun from Simpson’s car and denied running near the store around 10 a.m. He said he wore size 11 Nike brand shoes. He said he had shot off fireworks the day before the murders and also had handled a lead car battery while working on his truck.

On October 17, 1997, after an hour of deliberation, the jury convicted Flowers of the murder of Bertha Tardy. That same morning, following a sentencing hearing, the jury imposed the death penalty.

While that conviction and sentence were being appealed, Flowers went to trial for the murder of Derrick “BoBo” Stewart. This trial was moved to Harrison County. Prior to that trial, during a defense motion to bar the testimony of the jailhouse informants, Veal and Hawkins, Veal recanted his testimony. He said he had been coerced by the prosecution and promised a share of the reward. Hawkins stood by his testimony, although the defense confronted him with an undated transcript of an interview during which Hawkins said he never talked to Flowers in the jail. In that transcript, Hawkins said he testified against Flowers to “protect myself [from]…doing time and getting killed.” He said a cocaine charge against him was dropped and he got house arrest for burglary in exchange for his testimony.

The second trial began in March 1999. The racial makeup of the jury was eleven white members and one Black member. There were a few differences in this trial.

Roy Harris had testified at the first trial that he was with Clemmie Fleming at 10 a.m. near the furniture store when they saw a man—whom Fleming said was Flowers—running away from the store. He now testified that he saw a man running in downtown Winona at 9 a.m. and that Fleming was not with him. Harris said that an hour later, Fleming asked him to take her to the furniture store, but she changed her mind and they turned around before they ever got there.

In addition, Latarsha Blisset and Stacey Wright, Fleming’s cousins, both testified that Fleming admitted to them that she had not seen Flowers running from the store. And Fleming’s sister, Mary Ella Fleming, testified that when Clemmie Fleming arrived at her house on the morning of the murders, a friend came to tell them Bertha Tardy had been killed. Mary Ella Fleming testified that she and her sister went to Tardy’s, but that Clemmie Fleming never mentioned anything about having seen Flowers earlier that morning.

The defense also called Odell Hallman Jr., the brother of Patricia Hallman, who had testified that she saw Flowers on the day of the murders. Odell, who was in Parchman prison on a probation violation for aggravated assault, testified that Patricia was lying and that she was doing it at his suggestion in an attempt to cash in on the reward.

On March 30, 1999, the jury convicted Flowers of capital murder. The following day, the jury voted to impose the death penalty.

In December 2000, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed Flowers’s first conviction and ordered a new trial. The court did not address the defense claim that Evans had improperly excluded Black prospective jurors. The court held that Flowers’s trial was unfair because the prosecution was allowed to present evidence of all four murders, not just the murder of Bertha Tardy. As a result the jury was exposed to inflammatory and prejudicial evidence, the court ruled.

In addition, the court said that Evans “repeatedly asked improper questions not in good faith in which there was no basis, in fact. The prosecutor also improperly argued a supposedly inconsistent statement made by Flowers to law enforcement by admittedly holding up a taped statement which was not in evidence at the time, and in fact was never introduced as evidence to show inconsistencies as alleged or on the particular date claimed by the prosecutor. This potentially became confusing and misleading to the jury, especially when coupled with improper cross-examination of Flowers and an improper comment by the trial court.”

In April 2003, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed Flowers’s conviction for the murder of Derrick Stewart. The court said it was “absolutely compelled to find that…the State employed a tactic or trial strategy of trying Flowers for all four murders during this trial for which he was indicted only for the murder of Derrick Stewart. Evidence of the other victims was admitted through photographs, diagrams and other testimony, which was neither relevant nor necessary to prove the State’s case-in-chief against Flowers for the murder of Stewart. By using this tactic or trial strategy, the State improperly prejudiced the jury and denied Flowers his fundamental right to a fair trial.”

The court, as it did in the first reversal, also found that the prosecution “repeatedly argued facts not in evidence. This occurred during the cross-examination of several witnesses and during the closing arguments of both the district attorney and the assistant district attorney.”

At that point, the prosecution consolidated all four cases and Flowers went to trial a third time in Montgomery County in February 2004. During jury selection, the prosecution used its first seven peremptory challenges to strike Black jurors. The defense objected, contending the strikes were racially motivated. The prosecution then used its remaining five peremptory challenges of potential jurors on Black people. Ultimately, a jury of eleven white members and one Black members was selected. The lone Black juror was selected after the prosecution ran out of peremptory challenges. At the end of the jury selection process, the trial court ruled that the prosecution had not exercised its peremptory challenges in a racially discriminatory manner.

This trial unfolded similarly to prior trials with a notable exception—Odell Hallman Jr. testified for the prosecution that while at Parchman prison, Flowers confessed to him that he committed the murders. Hallman became the third jailhouse informant to claim Flowers had confessed.

On February 11, 2004, the jury convicted Flowers of four counts of capital murder, and sentenced him to death.

Three years later, on February 1, 2007, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the convictions and ordered a new trial. The court held that the prosecution had engaged in racially discriminatory jury selection. The court said the case “presents us with as strong a prima facie case of racial discrimination as we have ever seen.”

Flowers went to trial a fourth time in November 2007. The jury consisted of seven white and five Black members. On December 5, 2007, a mistrial was declared when the jury was unable to reach a verdict. The jury deadlock tracked racial lines with seven white jurors voting to convict and five Black jurors voting to acquit.

The fifth trial began in September 2008. Nine white jurors and three black jurors were empaneled. On September 30, this trial also ended in a mistrial with jurors voting 11-1 to convict. The lone holdout juror was Black.

In the summer of 2010, Flowers went to trial for the sixth time. Eleven jurors were white and one juror was Black. On June 18, 2010, the jury convicted Flowers of four counts of capital murder and he was again sentenced to death.

Flowers, represented by Keir Weyble and Sheri Johnson from the Cornell Law School Death Penalty Clinic, and as well as Alison Steiner, who defended Flowers at his fifth and sixth trials, appealed.

In 2014, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the convictions and death sentences. Flowers’s legal team sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 2016, the Court ordered the Mississippi Supreme Court to review whether the prosecution had again engaged in racially discriminatory jury selection. In November 2017, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote that there was no discrimination.

Flowers appealed to the Supreme Court again.

While that appeal was pending, American Public Media (APM) conducted an extensive investigation of the case and broadcast their findings in the podcast In the Dark, which began in May 2018. During the APM investigation, Clemmie Fleming said her testimony in all of Flowers’s trials that she saw him running away from the furniture store at about 10 a.m. on the day of the crime was untrue.

“The whole time I've been telling them, I don't remember the day,” Fleming said. “I’ve been confused of the day from the beginning. I just didn’t know how to say it. I was scared I was going to go to jail.”

Odell Hallmon also recanted, calling from a contraband cellphone from prison, where he was serving a life sentence for a triple murder committed in 2016.

“As far as him telling me he killed some people, hell naw, he ain’t ever told me that. That was a lie,” Hallmon said in the APM episode. “I don’t know nothing about this …. It was all make-believe. Everything was all make-believe on my part.”

Hallmon claimed that District Attorney Evans dropped drug charges pending against him and provided Hallmon with assistance in other cases that resulted in no prosecution at all. Evans denied that he ever helped Hallmon.

APM attempted to track down the “route witnesses,” those individuals who said they saw Flowers at various places on the morning of the crime. Harris, who had recanted his testimony at the second trial, said that when police first showed him a photo of Flowers, he said that the man that he saw running from the furniture store was not Flowers. Eventually, he broke down and said it was Flowers because he was afraid that the police were going to arrest him if he didn’t identify Flowers.

Edward McChristian recanted his testimony that he was sitting on his porch and saw Flowers walk past his house, going away from the Angelica factory sometime between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. He told APM that he had no idea which day he saw Flowers walk past his house and didn’t know whether it was the day of the murders or a different one. McChristian told APM that he didn't want to testify at Flowers’ trials, but he worried that he might get fined or even put in jail if he refused.

In June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Flowers’s convictions and death sentences, ruling that the prosecution had engaged in racially discriminatory jury selection.

“In the six trials combined, the State struck 41 of the 42 black prospective jurors it could have struck,” the court held. “At the sixth trial, the State struck five of six. At the sixth trial, moreover, the State engaged in dramatically disparate questioning of black and white prospective jurors. And it engaged in disparate treatment of black and white prospective jurors…” Attorney Sheri Lynn Johnson from Cornell Law School, who had made the argument in Flowers’s case that led to the reversal, said the case should be dismissed.

“That Mr. Flowers has already endured six trials and more than two decades on death row is a travesty,” she said in a statement. “A seventh trial would be unprecedented, and completely unwarranted given both the flimsiness of the evidence against him and the long trail of misconduct that has kept him wrongfully incarcerated all these years."

“We hope that the State of Mississippi will finally disavow Doug Evans’s misconduct, decline to pursue yet another trial, and set Mr. Flowers free,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, the Washington, D.C. law firm of Hogan Lovells and Tucker Carrington, director of the George P. Cochran Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi School of Law (where law students worked on developing evidence of racial bias during jury selection), as well as the Mississippi Office of Post Conviction Counsel and attorneys Rob McDuff and Henderson Hill began preparing for a possible retrial in the case. They asked that Flowers be released on bond.

On December 16, 2019, Flowers was released to home confinement to await a seventh trial. In January 2020, District Attorney Evans stepped off the case and the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office began reviewing the case.

On September 4, 2020, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch announced that the charges were dismissed.

In a statement, Flowers declared, “Today, I am finally free from the injustice that left me locked in a box for 23 years.”

In March 2021, the state of Mississippi agreed to pay Flowers $500,000 in compensation, the maximum allowed, at a rate of $50,000 per year over 10 years.

In September 2021, Flowers filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from Evans and police officers in the case.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 9/25/2020
Last Updated: 9/4/2021
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1996
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No