No 7th trial for Mississippi man freed from prison in 2019

Curtis Flowers was released from custody Dec. 16 for the first time in 22 years.

ByEmily Wagster Pettus and Jeff Amy AP logo
Saturday, September 5, 2020
No 7th trial for Mississippi man freed from prison in 2019
Mississippi prosecutors dropped the murder charges against Curtis Flowers on Friday after he spent 23 years in prison.

JACKSON, Miss. -- A Mississippi man freed last year after 22 years in prison will not be tried a seventh time in a quadruple murder case, a judge ruled Friday after prosecutors told him they no longer had any credible witnesses.

Curtis Flowers was convicted multiple times in a bloody slaying and robbery at a small-town furniture store in 1996. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the most recent conviction in June 2019, citing racial bias in jury selection.

"Today, I am finally free from the injustice that left me locked in a box for nearly twenty three years," Flowers said in a statement released by his lawyer. "I've been asked if I ever thought this day would come. I have been blessed with a family that never gave up on me and with them by my side, I knew it would."

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Joseph Loper signed the order Friday after the state attorney general's office, which had taken over the case, admitted the evidence was too weak to proceed with another trial.

"As the evidence stands today, there is no key prosecution witness ... who is alive and available and has not had multiple, conflicting statements in the record," Assistant Attorney General Mary Helen Wall wrote in a filing presented to Loper on Friday.

Four people were shot to death on July 16, 1996, in the Tardy Furniture store in Winona. They were owner Bertha Tardy, 59, and three employees: 45-year-old Carmen Rigby, 42-year-old Robert Golden and 16-year-old Derrick "Bobo" Stewart. Relatives of some of the victims have maintained their belief that Flowers is the killer.

Flowers was convicted four times in the slayings: twice for individual slayings and twice for all four killings. Two other trials involving all four deaths ended in mistrials.

Each of Flowers' convictions was overturned. In June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out the conviction and death sentence from Flowers' sixth trial, which took place in 2010. Justices said prosecutors showed an unconstitutional pattern of excluding African American jurors in the trials of Flowers, who is Black.

The Supreme Court ruling came after American Public Media's "In the Dark" investigated the case. Crucially, the podcast recorded jailhouse informant Odell Hallmon in 2017 and 2018 recanting his testimony that Flowers had confessed to him. Hallmon's story of the confession had been key evidence in later trials, but he told the podcast on a contraband cellphone from behind bars that his story was "a bunch of fantasies, a bunch of lying."

"The only witness who offered direct evidence of guilt recanted his prior testimony, admitting he was lying when he said Mr. Flowers made a jailhouse confession to the murders," Wall wrote Friday.

The podcast also presented an analysis finding a long history of racial bias in jury selection by Montgomery County District Attorney Doug Evans, and found evidence suggesting another man may have committed the crimes. Evans stepped aside from the case after State Attorney General Lynn Fitch took office in January.

"This prosecution was flawed from the beginning and was tainted throughout by racial discrimination," said defense lawyer Rob McDuff of the Mississippi Center for Justice. "It should never have occurred and lasted far too long, but we are glad it is finally over."

After the Supreme Court ruling, Flowers was moved off death row at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and taken to a regional jail in the central Mississippi town of Louisville. He remained in custody because the original murder indictment was still active.

At the request of Flowers' attorneys, Loper set bond at $250,000, with Flowers released in December after 10% of that amount was posted. The judge ruled Friday that all but $10 of the $25,000 should be returned to Matthew Popoli, who donated the money to support Flowers. Popoli had remained anonymous until Friday.

Winona sits near the crossroads of Interstate 55, the major north-south artery in Mississippi, and U.S. Highway 82, which runs east to west. It about a half-hour's drive from the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta. Among its 4,300 residents, about 48% are Black and 44% are white. Census Bureau figures show that about 30% live in poverty.