Friends of Justice in Winona

Criminal Justice — By Guest Author on June 15, 2010 at 08:55

By Lili Ibara

I’m writing from a motel in Winona, Mississippi, spending my vacation here so I can attend a capital murder trial for a man named Curtis Flowers. Flowers is accused of murdering four people in 1996; this will be the sixth time he is being tried for this crime. I’m here with Friends of Justice, a Southern nonprofit that defends due process in the criminal justice system. We’re trying to bring Curtis’s case to national attention because we believe he is the innocent victim of a racially biased prosecution (and it looks like we might be succeeding in getting that media attention, based on this recent CNN story and this one in the NYT).

I’ve volunteered with Friends of Justice off and on for the last ten years, ever since I worked as a VISTA volunteer in Plainview, Texas and got involved with the Tulia drug sting cases. Watching what happened in Tulia, where innocent people were wrongly accused and sentenced, I saw that often there really is no decent legal help for poor criminal defendants in the South. It was only when we got national media attention on the cases that things changed (the defendants were eventually pardoned by the Governor). The same thing has happened in other cases Friends of Justice has worked on including cases held in Hearne, Texas and in Jena, Louisiana.

But things aren’t looking so good in Mississippi right now. After three days of jury selection in the Curtis Flowers murder trial, we’ve gone from 156 potential jurors (roughly 67 black to 89 white) to about 50 jurors, about 15 of whom are black.  And, we haven’t even gotten to the peremptory strikes. (Note: the final jury was 11 white jurors and one African-American juror)

It’s been really draining to be in the courtroom, to realize people are talking about killing a man who is sitting right there at the defense table; to know his parents are sitting next to me watching people say that they may consider killing a son. It would be hard enough if I thought Curtis had killed four people. I really believe he is innocent though, and I know he’s already spent 14 years in jail (where, by the way, he’s been a model prisoner–no disciplinary write-ups, a lot of respect from the guards, and a leader of church services).

The whole thing is making me physically sick. I keep waking up in the middle of the night thinking about what it would be like if a courtroom full of people were talking about killing my baby.

It’s also incredibly sad to know that the victims’ families are there, too. They truly believe that we are all here to free the person who killed their family members. The husband of one victim angrily confronted Friends of Justice director Alan Bean in the courtroom last week, calling him a “sapsuck’n liar” and told him he “wasn’t going to get away with this.” Alan was angry but could sympathize with him too. These people really believe they are right.

Unfortunately they also have a lot of supporters who seem to be wheedling their way onto the jury. Many potential jurors admitted that they were friends of the victims’ families and that they had already formed an opinion about Curtis’s guilt, but swore they could be fair and impartial. The judge found these statements absolutely credible.

There are so many details that show Curtis isn’t getting a fair trial, that potential black jury members are afraid to be on the jury (one already formally asked to be excused because he was afraid of being arrested if he misspoke, as happened to a black juror from Curtis’s last trial who held out for an acquittal) and that the judge is favoring the prosecution (he’s allowing close friends of the victims to be on the jury, including one who admitted to attending two of the previous trials).

Wait, I need to repeat that bit, the judge thought there was no cause to dismiss a juror who had actually WATCHED two of the previous trials.

There’s also the inherent craziness of our criminal system, where the only people who can be on the jury are people who say they would consider imposing the death penalty. In this case the jurors were interviewed individually for this part, so potential jurors have to be willing to look right at Curtis and his family and say that yes, they could consider killing him. Most of the black jurors interviewed yesterday couldn’t do it, while most of the white ones, including close family friends of the victims, said yes, also suggesting that they could be absolutely fair and impartial to Curtis.

It’s my understanding that Curtis decided not to change venues because local people might know him, because he could not control where in Mississippi the trial was moved (the judge, the one who tried him last time, would get to decide that).

Yesterday the defense tried to present evidence that black jury members were afraid to be on the jury. In describing a climate of racial intimidation, the defense attorney pointed out that her African-American intern was stopped while driving into town. The intern was told to keep her hands on the wheel and her eyes on the road. She was asked what she was doing in town and told not to make any trouble. There was no answer when she asked what law she had broken. The judge was visibly outraged by this story, saying it was preposterous and the intern was probably speeding or otherwise breaking the law. The intern told me it took everything she had to keep quiet while the judge called her a liar.

There are also a lot of ridiculous details about the case itself that make me crazy. For example, the state’s big piece of physical evidence is the gunpowder residue found on Curtis’s hand hours after the shooting. It makes you at least seriously question Curtis’s innocence, right? But Friends of Justice Director Alan Bean explained the police had found only a single micron of residue on his hand, and that the FBI doesn’t use this kind of evidence any more because small amounts of residue can easily be picked up by doing things like say, touching handcuff or furniture at a police station or, even during the testing process itself.

The eyewitness testimony would also seem to reasonably place Curtis at the crime scene, or at least not preclude the possibility, until you learn that there were no willing witnesses until the state posted a $30,000 reward and went knocking on doors to ask people to testify. Once you know that, you understand why the physical descriptions by eyewitnesses are contradictory. One said he was wearing long pants and a jacket. A JACKET . . . IN MISSISSIPPI . . . IN JULY. Another said it was shorts and a t-shirt).

I don’t know if the prosecutor and judge really believe Curtis is guilty, or if they both just want to satisfy the victims’ families that the murderer has been found.

I do believe what we’re doing here is helpful though. When I worked on a Friends of Justice case in Tulia, Texas ten years ago I really thought that all the time we spent getting media attention, and all the time Alan later spent reviving media interest, was pretty futile. But then miraculously the media attention turned into pressure on the legal system which turned into, um … justice. It’s also what Alan Bean did with Jena – took a story local people told him and made it into a national story – now the kids arrested in Jena are in college, not prison.

So, I’m trying to be hopeful.


Lili Ibara is social worker in Boston and an attorney. Since 2000 she has been involved with Friends of Justice, a nonprofit organization that works to uphold due process for all Americans.

Line Break

Author: Guest Author (94 Articles)

  • 1 Comment

  • anonymous says:

    Of course he didn’t kill anyone. Of course i’m sure this is a black person that wrote this article as well. As soon as anyone of race is found guilty of anything they throw the racist card out. Be an adult and take responsibility for your actions!!! GROW A PAIR! Obviously he is guilty of this wouldn’t be going on. He was just randomly selected to be guilty. They are making these accusations based on factual information. Racism is ridiculous! If something goes wrong or something isn’t right then the cause of the problem is always because ‘it’s a white man’s world’. Unemployment rate is ridiculous because there are too many black women getting screwed by black men and they sit at home on their asses and draw welfare and unemployment that my white ass gets up everyday and I go to work to pay for. The same with black men. They complain that there aren’t any jobs and that’s why they’re bums. Well guess what??? To get a good job these days you have to go to college! It’s disappointing because the majority of african american students that successfully finish college or even high school is a small number. If you really want to help Curtis Flowers then let him be a grown man and accept his punishment for his actions and let him serve his time and learn his lesson! That’s the best thing that could happen to him! I guess that’s being racist too though huh???????

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Leave a Trackback