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.