Sextuple Jeopardy

The Groundhog Day of capital murder trials

In Mississippi early in the summer of 2010, emotionally spent jurors, some of them in tears, recommended that Curtis Giovanni Flowers be put to death for a quadruple murder. The judge agreed with the recommendation, sending Flowers to death row at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. The trial had lasted two weeks, and from beginning to end the Montgomery County Courthouse was filled with an unnerving sense of déjà vu. 

That’s because the 41-year-old Flowers has now been sentenced to death four times for the same crime. The first three convictions were thrown out on appeal by the Mississippi Supreme Court. The fourth, handed down June 18, 2010, is currently on appeal at the state’s highest court. Two other trials ended with hung juries. All told, Flowers has stood trial six times—a record in the history of American capital murder cases. He has become the judicial system’s answer to Groundhog Day.

Prior to Flowers, the longest running capital murder case was that of Curtis Kyles, whom New Orleans prosecutors tried five times for a 1984 murder. Kyles’ second jury sentenced him to death, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that conviction because prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense. After four mistrials due to hung juries, the charges against Kyles were dismissed in 1998, and he was released from prison, having spent 14 years behind bars.

“There is something shocking about the state repeatedly trying a case until it gets a jury to follow its will,” says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Cases like these, he argues, are why the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says no person should “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.”

“The principle behind it is a restriction on abuse of power by the state by repeatedly putting someone through the ordeal of indictment and a trial,” Dieter says. “This would seem to be just the kind of misuse of power that the amendment is aimed at.”

Flowers’ saga stands at the center of overlapping American judicial dysfunctions. The bulk of the case against him comes from the testimony of eyewitnesses and jailhouse snitches, two of the most historically unreliable sources of convictions in the United States. Prosecutorial misconduct led to the reversal of three convictions. Not only has that misbehavior gone unpunished, the same prosecutor has been prosecuting the same defendant with the same evidence for 15 years now. And the process throughout has been laced with the toxin that still poisons too much of the Mississippi justice: racism. 

Four Murders, One Suspect

On the morning of July 16, 1996, 76-year-old Sam Jones Jr. was walking on a sidewalk in Winona, Mississippi, toward the corner of Front and Carrollton Streets, where he held a part-time position at the Tardy Furniture Company. It was a Tuesday. Jones’ boss, Bertha Tardy, had called him that morning, reminding him to come help two new employees load a truck and make a delivery. At roughly 9:30 a.m., he pushed the store’s front door open.

The first victim he saw was Derrick “Bobo” Stewart, one of the new employees. The 16-year-old high school student had been shot once in the back of the head. When Jones found him, Stewart was lying on the floor, struggling to breathe as his blood pooled up around him. “The blood was running over his eyes,” Jones would later say. “And when I—every time his heart beat, blood covered his eyes over. And when it would clear off, well, his eyes were looking at me. And that’s what hurt so.”

Stewart died a week later. Testifying about the dying teenager more than 10 years afterward, Jones, a slight, elderly black man with a sad droop in his face, froze a crowded courtroom when he said simply, “I don’t want to talk about that no more.”

Jones next noticed Carmen Rigby lying on the floor. Rigby, 45, had worked at the store for two decades. She had been shot once in the back of the head. Not far away, Robert Golden was sitting on the floor, his back pressed against a counter. Golden was a 42-year-old black man working the first day of a second job he’d taken to support his family. He had been shot twice in the head. Jones then spotted Tardy, 59. She too had been shot once in the head. Stewart “was the only one showed life,” Jones would later say. “The rest of them were still. The rest of the three were still.”

At that point, Jones—who had worked at the furniture store since the spring of 1942—reached for the telephone but stopped himself. “I didn’t touch it,” he testified. “I said, no, I ain’t calling, I ain’t touching nothing in here. I headed for the door.” He asked a woman two stores down to dial 911. He then went back to Tardy Furniture Company and waited. He would later testify that after entering the store a second time with the chief of police, he noticed something he hadn’t the first time: bloody shoeprints.

Bill Thornburg, a sheriff’s deputy, arrived a little after Winona’s chief of police and medical personnel. A small white man who takes unhurried steps in cowboy boots, he would be elected sheriff of Montgomery County five years later. After arriving at the scene that morning, Thornburg found several bullet casings on the furniture store’s floor. He kneeled beside one and, using a pen from his shirt pocket, picked it up and read its back end. It was a .380-caliber shell.

While still at the scene, Thornburg received a call about a gun that had been stolen out of a car parked at Angelica, a textile factory about a mile from downtown. Thornburg went to the now-defunct factory and talked with Doyle Simpson, the car’s owner. Simpson, a janitor at the factory, would later testify that he had his .380 semi-automatic pistol cleaned the day before, then locked it in his glove compartment. He drove to work the next day, arriving around 6:30 a.m. About four hours later, he left to get lunch for co-workers. As he was closing the driver’s side door, he said, the glove compartment dropped open. “That’s when I knew somebody had been in my car,” he testified. “It had been locked. It had been pried open.” 

Thornburg would later retrieve bullets fired from the gun from a stump behind Simpson’s home. Ballistic tests conducted on those bullets, when compared to spent rounds taken from inside Tardy Furniture Company, suggested Simpson’s .380 was used in the shootings. The murder weapon has never been found.

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  • Suki||

    Manning signs with Denver. There, out of the way.

  • ||

    What a moron. So much for him being smart. He could have signed with San Fran and played with probably the best defense in football. Denver's defense is terrible and was totally exposed by the Patriots last year. Manning just must like losing to the Patriots after all these years.

  • ||

    There was going to be one hell of a power struggle over play calling if Manning went to SF. I can't see Jim Harbaugh letting him run the show.

  • Ex nihilo||

    I wondered why he didn't pick SF. They were one game from the SB last year. Wonder if Peyton will mentor Tebow or if Tebow is gone?

  • Tman||

    Here in Tennessee we though Peyton coming here would be a no brainer but not because we were a better choice than SF. Certainly better than Denver though.

  • Karburetor Kristen||

    Tebow's gonna be traded...multiple articles via Google news say Pats.

  • ||

    Then he is a ego maniac who doesn't give a shit about winning. He has got three maybe four years left. He has accomplished everything but winning multiple Super Bowls. It boggles my mind that he would make this decision based on any factor other than "where is the best best chance to win a championship". If he didn't go to the 49ers because he wanted control of the offense, he really is the loser that his detractors claim he is.

  • ||

    John, Its kind of hard to seriously pin the "loser" impramatur upon Manning.

    Who in NFL history has ever rallied his team down 21-3 to win a conference championship game?

    Only one man.

    Who in NFL history has rallied his team down by 21 points with 5:00 minutes to play in the 4th quarter on the road against the defending world champs on their home turf?

    Only one man.

    Those two accomplishments, alone, are enough to innoculate the quarterback who engineered the same from criticism that he is a loser.

    Add in 5 or 6 consecutive 12 win seasons and a Super Bowl win along with 399 TD passes and its checkmate.

    How about his 4th quarter comebacks? I believe that he is numero uno in terms of most 4th quarter comebacks - if the measurement is being down by any number of points at any time in the 4th quarter.

  • ||

    I wouldn't call him a loser. I just think that making this decision based on any other fact than where is the best place to win, makes no sense.

  • ||

    Even in some big games he has lost, see the 2005 playoff loss to the Steelers (think Big Ben's game saving tackle on the return of the Bus' goal line fumble and the liquored up kicker missing the game tying field goal) or the Nov. 30, 2003 regular season loss to the Patriots (down 31-10, he rallies the Colts to tie the score at 31-31 and had the Colts at the 2 yard line when Willie McGinnis made that great stop on Edgerrin James), he rallied his team from way down to put the Colts in a position to win or tie.

  • Gojira||

    All those regular season feats are meaningless. The point of professional sports is to win championships, period. I don't give a good goddamn if a team has 16 wins every year and then loses in the playoffs, they're every bit as much a loser as the team that goes 0-16.

  • Tman||

    That pretty much describes Peytons career at both UT and Indy, minus the one ring he won over da Bears.

  • ||

    Okay, but let's play the thing out and see what happens.

    Maybe John Elway is more prepared to let Peyton run the offense than Harbaugh is.

    This last season, btw, I heard both Boomer Easiason and Danny Marino opine that Harbaugh always acted as if he had a chip on his shoulder. I got the distinct impression that neither cares much for Harbaugh's personality.

  • ||

    Jim, no, all those regular season feats are not meaningless. The number of zeros on his contracts and his wealth and his endorsements say otherwise.

    Furthermore, for most INDIVIDUALS, its about INDIVIDUAL accomplishemnts and INDIVIDUAL satisfaction, not winning Mr. Lombardi's trophy or Lord Stanley's Cup.

    Why did you first play sports? To win a championship? If you answer yes, I call BULL SHIT.

    You play to have fun. You play cuz you love it and you play cuz you excel at it.

  • Gojira||

    Yeah, I play to have fun. But I expect my professional teams to play for championships, and nothing but.

  • Almanian||

    What Jim said. Once you're getting paid, it ain't Little League or getting your Varsity Letter™ (I was allllll about that letter in High School!)

  • ||

    But, it ain't, so says reality.

    Do you honestly think that all professional ball players (football, basketball, hockey and baseball) are motivated SOLELY by winning championships?

  • ||

    Denver's defense isn't terrible, but it isn't quite there, yet, either. San Francisco would've been his best opportunity to return to the big game. Still, there are a lot of factors to a decision like this.

  • ||

    I don't see any others. Why else is he playing if not to win another Super Bowl?

  • ||

    Maybe he thinks the Broncos have a better shot than the 49ers. Its not like the 49ers defense was anything like the 85' Bears or the 76' Steelers.

    Plus, in Peyton's mind, all he has to do is look at the 2006 Colts. Look at how horrible they were against the run and then look what happened in the playoffs. Larry Johnson was held to what, 23 yards or something? And then they go on the road and shut out the Ravens.

  • ||

    San Francisco has its flaws, too, and past success doesn't guarantee future success, especially in the NFL. And the fact that they lost to the Giants--not a particularly good team, championship notwithstanding--may have given him pause. It's not like the West was a good division last year, either.

    Denver may plug its other holes in the draft (something they likely would've discussed in at least general terms with Manning), and it's possible that one attraction for him was the offensive line, which is arguably better than the 49ers' (it had a porous look at times, but I think that was more attributable to Tebow holding the ball too danged long).

    No telling for sure, but Manning is no fool, so I'm sure he had good reasons for his choice.

  • omnibot||

    His arm is done.

  • Karburetor Kristen||

    How's the O line, though? IIRC, Tebow got hammered pretty thoroughly last year?

  • Zeb||

    If Reason decides to do something about trolls, can they also do something about irrelevant football-related subthreads?

  • blar||

    Randomness is a long standing tradition in the Reason cyberculture.

  • protefeed||

    Groundhog Day beats "Last Meal Followed by a Needle in the Arm Day."

  • ||

    Last Meal Followed by a Needle in the Arm Day was a truly terrible movie.

  • Brother Grimm||

    Wasn't that a Gary Busey flick?

  • ||

    How would you tell? His films are all the same.

  • Brother Grimm||

    Hey, "Silver Bullet" was cool! And the one role where he played a good guy.

  • Tim||

    Wasn't this a movie with Marissa Tomei?

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Yeah, you blend.

  • no party like communist party||

    In other news:
    TOP MEN say we need TOP MEN to run the economy, lest wrathful Mother Gaia will purge us from the face of the earth

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....195338.htm

  • Brother Grimm||

    They can't be too TOP. I didn't see one mention of gamboling.

  • Paul||

    Some 32 social scientists and researchers from around the world have concluded that fundamental reforms of global environmental governance are needed to avoid dangerous changes in the Earth system.

    32 guys you've never heard of in a field entirely unrelated to climate science come to a consensus that something must be done.

    This shit takes the cake.

  • I Blame Videogames!||

    This shit takes the cake.

    Hey! These guys are trying to save us! They'll be toughing it out "at this summer's United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro."

    Ever notice they never host these things in Hoboken?

  • Paul||

    In other news, some guys you've never heard of have a facebook page and a youtube video demanding military intervention in a foreign country.

    Maybe we should have a beer summit with them and entertain their ideas.

  • Paul||

    Reducing the risk of potential global environmental disaster requires the development of "a clear and ambitious roadmap for institutional change and effective sustainability governance within the next decade,

    Because the Soviet Union was such a shining star of environmental stewardship.

  • Cbalducc||

    If the ten-year-old victim hadn't died without being able to identify the shooter(s), this "Groundhog Day" scenario may never have happened. It's hard to believe a brutal crime can be committed in a public place without being witnessed, but it can happen.

  • ||

    Yeah, just look at that Missouri case involving that guy, what was his name, Ken McEntyre, something like that, the town bully who mysteriously got shot in broad daylight in front of dozens of his fellow townsfolk.

  • Cbalducc||

    Ken Rex McElroy was his name.

  • ||

    Through six trials he has spent more than $300,000 in taxpayer money

    I would assume that lawyers are pretty cheap in Mississippi, but how the hell do you do capital murder trials for an average of $50,000 each?

  • Paul||

    Good catch. Six major murder trials for $300,000. Things are cheaper in the country. There goes the argument that death penalty trials are "too expensive".

    I'm guessing that number's a misquote. Eyewitness reliability and all.

  • ||

    "Yes, we've spent a third of a million dollars on six unsuccessful prosecutions, so of course we have to keep on spending taxpayer money on more prosecutions." Did this guy have lunch with President Obama or something?

  • Almanian||

    I hope it doesn't take 6 tries to get into heaven

  • ||

    Well, you'll never get to heaven if you.........

  • ||

    That depends on the amount of Purgatory one scores.

  • AndyH||

    In what way is this a case of "...the state repeatedly trying a case until it gets a jury to follow its will”? Rightly or wrongly, a jury has already followed the prosecutor's will 4 times. Whatever else it might be, this certainly doesn't look like a case of a peversely lenient jury.

  • hk||

    And the appeals court seems to have blown a huge hole in these cases each time.

    I have also not heard of that, the prosecution is doing a very poor job either way.

  • ||

    Mostly procedural errors (referencing un-admitted evidence, etc), and then they got dragged into the race bullshit (because a jury must perfectly reflect the racial composition of the community, unless it's 11 black people letting off a black man in a national, televised murder trial). The weakness of this argument is that it doesn't get at the actual facts of the case - it's basically advocating for releasing this guy because the evidence is questionable and he's already been through enough. If he's innocent, it's a shame he's had to spend 14 years behind bars while the justice system has failed to dot its I's and cross its T's, but on the other hand, if he's guilty, do you really want him to be let go, not based on the merits of his case, but because the prosecutor didn't select enough black people for the jury?

  • ||

    AGotta just love them bought and paid for politicians.

    www.Anon-Planet.tk

  • hk||

    "Prosecutorial misconduct led to the reversal of three convictions. Not only has that misbehavior gone unpunished, the same prosecutor has been prosecuting the same defendant with the same evidence for 15 years now."

    That sounds completely unconstitutional.

  • Government||

    That sounds completely unconstitutional.

    We like to call it; Prosecutor Practice.

  • ||

    It seems that all of the reversals have been because of glaring procedural errors and absurd, only-in-modern-America racial issues - not the actual merits of the case. In that case, it does make sense to continue prosecution until an incontrovertible verdict can be reached rather than release a potential quadruple murderer because there weren't enough blacks on the jury or because 1 incompetent prosecutor referenced facts not in evidence. There are clear cut cases of prosecutorial badgering that are of grave constitutional concern. This is not one of them. This is a case where procedural fuck ups and social justice race politics continue to prolong a case instead of just letting 12 people decide it based on the actual merits. This guy DOES deserve a fair trial, as does the public, but he doesn't deserve acquittal by default.

  • ||

    I am not sure what the complaint here is. Is it that the constitution forbids double jeopardy? I think it reads - "...no person should “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.”.

    What is the big deal? He cannot twice be put in jeopardy...and he hasnt. Flowers was put in jeopardy six times. So there, it is constitutional.

  • tipuasher||

    I enjoyed reading your article. It is refreshing to see honest and open belief on this subject.
    http://michele2012.com

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