Six trials, four death sentences, and 24 years later, Curtis Flowers is officially a free man.
Right before the doors of the Montgomery County Circuit Court closed for the Labor Day weekend, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch filed a motion declaring Curtis Flowers innocent of all charges.
“As a general rule, General Fitch intends to refrain from seeking media coverage on individual prosecutions in an effort to desensationalize this very serious process for the individuals involved,” Colby Jordan, of Fitch’s office, said confirming the Flowers decision. “The families here deserve that respect.”
It’s been a long and tiresome ride for Flowers, who was unjustly tried six different times for the 1997 murders of four people inside a Winona furniture store, and with the case finally being closed, here’s a look back at the prosecution in its entirety.
The Flowers Timeline
July 1996 – Tardy Furniture Store
On July 3, Flowers was fired from Tardy Furniture for unspecified reasons. This mere fact immediately made Flowers the Winona Police Department’s top suspect for the four murders that happened on July 16. On that hot, summer morning, a retired employee by the name of Sam Jones had been asked to come in and train some new delivery guys. When Jones walked into the store, he found the body of owner Bertha Tardy, plus the bodies of three employees: Robert Golden, Carmen Rigby, and Derrick Stewart. On top of his recent firing, certain ‘eyewitnesses’ claimed they saw Flowers wandering around the front of the store right before the shootings. No gun was found at the scene, but a forensics lab later determined that the bullets used to kill the four individuals were the same caliber, a .380, as a gun that had been stolen from Flowers’ uncle that same day. Flowers was arrested for the murders.
October 1997 – Trial #1
Instead of trying him for the murders of all four people, prosecutor Doug Evans tried Flowers only for the death of Bertha Tardy in the course of what he insinuated to be a robbery gone bad. Prosecution witnesses testified that the gun was the same, as well as firmly standing by forensic evidence that showed Flowers did, in fact, have gun powder on his hands. Flowers maintained his innocence, claiming that the gun powder derived from his use of fireworks the night before. The prosecution also testified that the 10 1/2 Fila sneaker footprint that had been found at the scene provides enough circumstantial evidence to convict Flowers as he owned a pair of 10 1/2 Filas. Even though he claims to have been wearing Nikes that day, the all-white jury convicted Flowers of the death of Tardy and sentenced him to death row.
March 1999 – Trial #2
As the United States Supreme Court reviewed Flowers’ appeal of the first verdict, Evans tried Flowers for the murder of Derrick Stewart. Flowers went in front of the same judge, Clarence E. Morgan III, except in a different place. The trial was moved to Harrison County in an attempt to receive a fair and impartial jury. The result? An all-white jury except for one person. The jury voted Flowers guilty of the murder of Stewart. The first two trials were eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in December of 2000 as Evans asked questions “not in good faith.”
February 2004 – Trial #3
This time around, Flowers was tried and convicted of all four murders. The U.S. Supreme Court, in 2007, once again overturned the ruling as Evans’ peremptory challenges were ruled unconstitutional due to discriminatory tactics he used when selecting jurors—a racially motivated scheme that he had also used prior to the first two trials.
November 2007 – Trial #4
Still in front of the same judge, this was the first trial that Evans and his prosecution team did not request the death penalty for Flowers. Why? The families of the victims simply wanted to see the trial come to a conclusion and Flowers to be sentenced to life behind bars. In 2010, Stewart’s brother, Dale, told CNN that he believes in the death penalty, but “it would be worth it for him to get life so we can move on.” Even though Evans continued along with his striking off of black jurors, the fourth trial’s jury ended up consisting of five black jurors and seven white jurors. The jury voted 7-5 in favor of conviction, however, the trial was pronounced a mistrial due to the five votes acquittal votes coming from the five black jurors.
September 2008 – Trial #5
In a front of a different judge, Joseph Loper, for the first time since the initial prosecution in 1997, the fifth trial also resulted in a mistrial due to a hung jury. Immediately after the trial, Judge Loper openly called out one of the jurors, James Bibbs, for perjury. The charges against Bibbs were dropped one year later as there was no evidence showing Bibbs committed perjury by bringing outside information into jury deliberations.
June 2010 – Trial #6
The final trial was back in Montgomery County and this time, the jury consisted of 11 white jurors and one black juror. After convening, the jury announced that they had voted Flowers to be guilty of four counts of capital murder. Flowers appealed, but the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the conviction.
May 2018 – In the Dark podcast
In May of 2018, journalist and podcaster Madeleine Baran launched season two of In the Dark, which took an inside look at the Flowers’ case and all of its discrepancies. Baran took a special notice to retracted testimonies by witnesses and former cellmates, the fact that the murder weapon was never found, plus the failure to thoroughly consider other suspects. More importantly, Baran used the podcast to shed needed light on the racially motivated tactics used by Evans.
June 2019 – U.S. Supreme Court’s Ruling
Thanks to the evidence discovered by Baran, Flowers’ legal team was able to get the U.S. Supreme Court to take another look at the Mississippi Supreme Court’s implementation, or lack thereof, of Batson v. Kentucky (1986), which ruled that a prosecutor’s use of a peremptory challenge cannot be spurred by the race of a juror. On June 21, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-2 to overturn Flowers’ conviction from the sixth trial.
December 2019 – Bail
Weeks before Christmas, Judge Loper granted a $250,000 bail for Flowers, admitting that a handful of key witnesses had recanted their testimonies. It was the first time in over two decades that Flowers got to spend the holidays at home with his family.
January 2020 – Evans Steps Down
It is more than apparent that Evans had discriminational intent throughout every, single one of the six trials as 41 of his 42 challenges were used to exclude African Americans from serving as a juror. January 8th was a win not only for Flowers and his legal team but for Mississippi’s court system in general as Evans decided to step away from the case and request it go to the attorney general’s office for prosecution. In his voluntary recusal, which was turned into the Montgomery County Circuit Court, Evans wrote, “While I remain confident in both the investigation and jury verdict in this matter, I have come to the conclusion that my continued involvement will prevent families from obtaining justice and from the defendant being held responsible for his actions.”
September 2020 – Finally Free
After seven months of analyzing the case, Attorney General Lynn Fitch filed the paperwork on Friday, September 4, ultimately giving Flowers something that he has not experienced in over 24 years—the feeling of absolute freedom.