Prolonged, Racially Divided Legal Battle Ends In Sixth Conviction, Third Death Sentence

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After 13 years in the legal system, and six separate trials, Curtis Flowers has again been convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection for the 1996 deaths of four furniture-store employees in rural, racially divided Winona, Mississippi.

It took only half an hour for the jury—composed of seven women and five men, only one of whom was black—to return the guilty verdict on four counts of murder, one each for victims Bertha Tardy, 59; Carmen Rigby, 45; Robert Golden, 42; and Derrick “Bobo” Stewart, 16. The verdict was returned on Friday; the sentence came after an hour and a half of deliberation on Saturday.

Flowers, who is black, has been on trial five times before. The first two trials’ convictions were reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct; a conviction in the third was reversed because of racial discrimination during jury selection. The fourth trial resulted in a hung jury, with jurors divived 5-7 along racial lines. The fifth trial ended in a mistrial, after one juror refused to convict Flowers. Twice before, Flowers has received the death penalty for the shootings, but each time that, too, was overturned.

Some residents of Winona, most supporters of the defendant, have claimed that race factored heavily into the case from the beginning, saying that if the jury selection more accurately reflected the racial makeup of the area—Montgomery County is approximately 45 percent black—Flowers would have had fairer trials. During jury selection for the most recent trial, some blacks in the jury pool were dismissed because they had personal ties to Flowers or his family, or because they did not want to consider the death penalty.

A recent study conducted by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit based in Montgomery, Alabama, found that “all-white juries tend to spend less time deliberating, make more errors, and consider fewer perspectives” than racially mixed juries. Additionally, the Initiative says, peremptory strikes and support of the death penalty also fall along racial lines.

Families of the victims, however, disagree that race played a role in either the shootings or the prosecution of them, especially since one of the victims, Robert Golden, was himself black.

Several witnesses for the prosecution claim to have seen Flowers the morning of July 16, 1996. One woman said that she saw him in a factory parking lot near his uncle’s car; the uncle, Doyle Simpson, also testified that a pistol had been stolen from the car that morning. Neither Simpon’s .380-caliber pistol nor the murder weapon were ever recovered. Another woman testified that she saw the defendant running from the store around the time of the killings, a testimony that was rebutted by that of her sister, who claimed the woman was visiting her that morning.

Other circumstantial evidence, including a bloody shoe print, tied Flowers to the crime, although the shoes that made that print were never found. Prosecutors also said that Flowers held a grudge against the owners of Tardy’s Furniture Store, from which he had been fired for damaging merchandise earlier that summer.

Under Mississippi law, the death sentence will trigger an automatic appeal.

 

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