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“Smoke or Fog?: Curtis Flowers Trial Day Eight”

By Alan Bean
This week, Curtis Flowers is being tried for capital murder for the sixth time in Winona, Mississippi. Friends of Justice is observing the trial. In this update from Day Eight, Friends of Justice’s Executive Director explains why the “evidence” offered by the prosecution is fundamentally misleading.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” The prosecution of Curtis Flowersrests on this bit of folk wisdom. Curtis told investigators he never strayed onto the east side of Highway 51 on the morning of July 16, 1996, a day when four innocent people were murdered execution-style at the Tardy furniture store. One witness seeing Curtis Flowers on the east side of the highway might be mistaken, but the state has half-a-dozen witnesses making this claim. With that much smoke there must be a fire some place. Or are we all being duped by an elaborate fog machine? Strip the eye-witness testimony from this case and nothing remains but junk science. There’s the bloody footprint. The Mississippi Crime Lab has shown that the print was made by a size 10-11 Grant Hill Fila running shoe. An empty shoe box for a pair of 10.5 Grant Hill Filas was found in a chest of drawers owned by Connie Moore, Curtis Flowers’ live-in girlfriend. Grant Hill Filas were a sensation in the summer of 1996, with over 600,000 pairs in the size 10-11 range purchased nationally. Every young man in Winona who could afford the $100 price tag owned a pair. Connie Moore says the shoe box is from a pair of Filas she purchased for her son Marcus. Marcus confirms this testimony. Smoke or fog? The problem pile grows. The pool of blood grew gradually between the murders and he time the first witness arrived on the scene. Moments after the killing there would have been little blood to step in. Sam Jones, the first man to witness the scene, has testified that the print wasn’t there when he arrived at the furniture store. An older white witness, Charles “Porky” Collins, claims to have seen two black men walking toward Tardy’s at around 10:00, a moment or two after Sam Jones ran off to report the crime. Additionally, a single particle of gunshot residue was found on the web of the defendant’s right hand. District Attorney Doug Evans has a mantra: particles of lead, barium and antimony can only be produced by the discharge of a firearm. Does this mean Curtis Flowers fired a gun that morning? The jury may be thinking along these lines, but claims from expert witnesses are more modest. A single particle of residue can easily be picked up by casual contact, especially in a highly contaminated environment, such as a police station or police car. Studies have shown that gunshot residue is ubiquitous in these environments. Judge Joey Loper was asked to restrict testimony on the residue issue but ruled for the state, his standard practice. Smoke or fog? For the past few days a parade of compromised black people testified that fourteen years ago they saw Flowers walking in the direction of a garment factory, hanging around a parking lot, returning home, heading downtown, walking in the direction of Tardy’s, arguing with an unidentified stranger in front of Tardy’s and running from the scene of a crime. Smoke or fog? Many people claim to have seen the defendant doing many things at many times and in many places; even the prosecutor and defense counsel have a hard time keeping it all straight. Who are these people, and why do they keep repeating the same testimony year-after-year? There’s Patricia Hollman, who saw Flowers heading North to arrive at a southern destination. Elaine Ghoulston, the sharp-eyed neighbor who detected a pair of Grant Hill Fila running shoes at a distance of 200 feet. Katherine Snow said she saw a five-foot-six stranger with a cap leaning against a car in the garmet factory parking lot. A month later, she remembered that she had seen a five-foot-ten, hatless, Curtis Flowers. Jeanette Fleming waited seven months to report meeting Curtis Flowers. Fleming was working at McDonald’s when officers took her to the police station. She has no idea how they got her name. Charles “Porky” Collins witnessed Carmen Rigby entering Tardy Furniture for the last time, Curtis Flowers arguing with an unnamed man in front of the store and Doyle Simpson reporting his gun stolen. Odell Hallomon claims an extreme addiction to cigarettes drove him to accuse his sister of perjury. In the second trial, Hallomon testified that he and his sister Patricia Hallomon cooked up a story about Flowers to obtain the $30,000 reward. “When I got out of prison, my momma was on me everyday,” Odell said. After a few weeks of constant harassment from his mother and sister, he got on the phone and told District Attorney Evans he was going to change his story. Mr. Evans has done his best to harmonize this flurry of testimony, but serious problems remain. Jeanette Fleming saw Curtis a block from Tardy’s at 9:00 am and Clemmie Fleming saw him running away from the furniture store 60 minutes later. Would a murderer spend a full hour at the crime scene? Where did he go between 9:40, when the bodies were first discovered, and 10:00 when Clemmie Flemming saw him leaving the scene? While Clemmie Fleming saw Flowers fleeing the scene, Collins saw him engaged in a vigorous argument on the boulevard. Police initially had two suspects: Doyle Simpson and Curtis Flowers. Shortly after Collins reported his strange tale to the police, Simpson had been eliminated as a suspect. This made Simpson superfluous, but the report could not be altered. Evans copes by pretending that Collins never mentioned a second man. Why is there no overlap in the way the various witnesses describe the defendant’s physical appearance? They have him wearing clothing in a variety of colors, shapes, lengths and sizes, including a jacket on a scorching Mississippi summer day. Is the state’s case generating smoke, or is a fog of confusion settling over the courtroom? Why would any prosecutor allow himself to be associated with witnesses this unconvincing? Because Doug Evans created these witnesses. They are his puppets. They twirl and sing at his command. At the end of Clemmie Fleming’s testimony on Monday, defense attorney Ray Carter asked her why it took nine months for her to turn on Curtis Flowers. “They told me there was a baby in it,” the dead-pan witness responded. “A baby?” Carter said. Clemmie Fleming explained that 16 year-old Bobo Stewart, one of the victims, was just a baby in her eyes. Outraged by this new information, she broke her silence. Carter asked one final question. “You don’t believe that Curtis Flowers killed those people at Tardy’s, do you Clemmie?” “No, sir,” she replied softly. Outraged by the death of an innocent adolescent, Clemmie Fleming decided to implicate an innocent man. Ponder that, dear reader, and you’ll know why Friends of Justice is in Winona. The tension at the courthouse deepens by the day. By now, everybody on the white side of the room knows who I am, and they’re all glaring I was standing outside the courthouse when I glimpsed a middle-aged gentleman looking in my direction. “By the way,” he said, “I find you disgusting.” “Thank you, sir,” I replied. “You’re welcome,” he snarled. ### Dr. Alan Bean is Executive Director of Friends of Justice, an organization that defends due process in Texas and the South. Friends of Justice emerged as a grassroots response to the 1999 Tulia drug sting, and was the first organization to attract national attention to the “Jena 6” case.