The case of Curtis Clowers is one of the most outstanding among Supreme Court cases reviewed in the last two decades. Curtis Giovanni Flowers (born May 29, 1970) is an African-American man who has been on trial six times for the same crime in the state of Mississippi, United States. This year, the Supreme Court overruled Flowers’ murder conviction, but the final decision has yet to be made. This paper goes in-depth on the case of Curtis Flowers: it outlines its specifics and explains how forensic evidence and testimonies shaped the outcome of the case. Aside from that, it argues that some of the actions undertaken by the state at the time of Flowers’ arrest and trials were illegal.
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On the morning of July 16, 1996, a former employee of Tardy Furniture entered the store and found four bodies, one of the owners and the other three of the workers all of whom had been shot to death. Curtis Flowers soon became the main suspect after the police learned that he had been fired from the store two weeks prior to the shooting (“In the Dark Season 2”). In support of the case against Flowers, some eyewitnesses reported seeing them next to the store on the day of the murder. The suspect denied allegations, claiming that he was going to work as usual without knowing that he had been laid off. Moreover, Flowers stated that the descriptions provided by eyewitnesses did not match what he was wearing on that day.
The case ended up hinging on three pieces of evidence: the gun, an alleged confession, and particulate matter on the suspect’s hands. Each of these pieces is up to debate and cannot be held to the highest standard of validity. As told by Flowers, he was working fireworks the day before, which explains the matter found on his hands. The murder weapon has never been found, and the confession was allegedly made by Flowers to his prison mate, which has since been questioned by the court.
Despite the confusing contents of the case, prosecutors came to what is described as a “major decision-making point” in the story, and Flowers was sentenced to life in prison (Fuller 10). After their initial conviction, he has been held on death row. To understand the case better, it is essential to go into detail regarding evidence and testimonies that advanced its development. The analysis of the case draws from the podcast by APM Reports In the Dark that is based on procedural law. Namely, it describes the particularities of the court’s proceedings, how witnesses were chosen, jurors selected, and evidence handled.
Forensic Evidence: The Gun and Its Bullets
Ballistic evidence was originally what made advanced Flowers’ case in 1997. However, as new details resurfaced, critics grew suspicious of the validity of the initial evidence. What made them question the contents of the case is the court’s inability to locate the central piece of evidence – the gun and its bullets. From the start, investigators were aware that a.380-caliber handgun was used to murder four employees at the furniture store, yet, ut had never been found.
That fact, surely, made linking the suspect and the crime fairly challenging. Upon further investigation, the court managed to find two bullets that were shot from a gun belonging to Curtis Flowers’ step-uncle. The gun was allegedly stolen by the suspect the morning before the shooting (“In the Dark Season 2”). Prosecutors succeeded in matching the two bullets found around the uncle’s property and the one extracted from the mattress at the store. Yet, the logic was not sound enough to make any conclusions, and another expert was called for help.
Balash joined the case in 1998 – one year after Flowers had been found guilty for the first time. A retired state trooper and ballistics expert, Balash testified at the five subsequent trials, claiming that the uncle’s gun was indeed the murder weapon. At Flowers’ ultimate, sixth trial in 2010, the expert still stood his ground. Balash based his conclusion that he has stayed true to for the years to come on one of the main assumptions of the ballistics field. It states that every gun leaves a unique impression comparable to fingerprints in humans.
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It does not matter if two guns are the same model – even the most filigree technology cannot make them identical at the microscopic level (“In the Dark Season 2”). Thus, to link a gun to a crime, an investigator needs to draw a comparison between bullets found at a crime scene with those extracted from a suspect’s weapon.
Ballistics theory reigned supreme in criminal justice for years. However, now, experts are starting to question its key assumptions. Concerning Curtis Flowers’ case, there might be a limit to what experts can claim. The bullets from the weapons were not recovered under perfect conditions. If a similar investigation took place today, it would be advised against extracting the bullets from the wooden post as it was done in the case analyzed (“In the Dark Season 2”). Instead, an investigator would request to send the entire piece of wood to make sure that the evidence remains intact. Besides, focusing on only one or two weapons while excluding all other possibilities makes the eventual link to a crime an overstatement.
Out of all witnesses, the key figure was probably Odell “Cookie” Hallmon Jr. In court, the prosecution’s main witness Hallmon testified against Flowers. He reported that Flowers allegedly made a confession to him while they were both in prison and admitted to shooting four people at the store. Now that the case of Curtis Flowers has resurfaced and is widely discussed, more attention than ever is paid to Hallmon’s background and personality. The prosecution’s witness is known to be a career criminal who debuted in the criminal world at the tender age of 12 and has not fallen out of the lifestyle for the next 30 years (“In the Dark Season 2”). His life has been an array of crimes of varying gravity: robbery, selling drugs, aggravated assault, and murder attempts.
One would think that a man like Hallmon would be doomed to spend his entire life in prison, given how frequently he interacted with law enforcement. Yet, his life story took an unexpected turn when Curtis Flowers was put under arrest. Hallmon was already known for having his way with the law – he would often get away with misconduct or receive a lighter punishment than any other person in his situation. After Hallmon testified against Flowers, he was treated generously by the court – namely, he avoided any punishment in seven felony cases (“In the Dark Season 2”).
Hallmon’s testimony was central to solving Curtis Flowers’ case for two reasons. First, it was the only direct piece of evidence that investigators managed to obtain. All others were circumstantial and, hence, much weaker. Investigators could not rely solely on other people’s statements that they might have seen Flowers walking to the store and the link between the gun and the crime. Hallmon helped the case advance significantly and decided the suspect’s fate in a way.
The second reason is the seriousness with which juries usually take confession evidence. If a defendant confessed, it is difficult for the defendant to overcome it. Now that Hallmon is serving a life sentence that cannot be overruled, he changed his mind about Flowers’ case. It is argued that the person who sent Flowers to prison might become the person who will facilitate his release.
There is one more aspect central to understanding the complexity of Curtis Flowers’ case – the makeup of the juries at each of the trials the man has been two. The transcript of the latest 2010 trial goes as follows:
“Petitioner Curtis Flowers has been tried six separate times for the murder of four employees of a Mississippi furniture store. Flowers are black; three of the four victims were white. At the first two trials, the State used its peremptory strikes on all of the qualified black prospective jurors. […] At the third trial, the State used all of its 15 peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors, and the jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death (Flowers v. Mississippi).”
From this excerpt alone, it is readily imaginable how the court introduced racial dynamics to skew the case.
The outcome of a trial often depends on those who are sitting on the jury. Out of all of the six trials that Curtis Flowers has been through, each displayed a strange pattern. In the two trials that included more than one African-American juror, the outcome was a hung dry. However, when the Black-to-White ratio on the jury was skewed to represent the White population, the final decision was the death penalty.
One may assume that perhaps, the jury makeup was reflective of the racial breakdown of Montgomery County’s population. However, the county in question is about 45% Black (“In the Dark Season 2”). It is now argued that the juror selection that happened in three trials was intentional. The so-called venire – a pool of eligible candidates – was manipulated in order to exclude African-Americans. On appeal, Flowers, lawyers claimed that the state accepted White jurors whose expertise and the experience were similar to those of Black jurors. There were no sound reasons as to why the latter might have been rightfully left out. However, in the 2017 decision made by the Mississippi Supreme Court, the exclusions were validated.
The case of Curtis Flowers is complex enough to take six trials that have yet to yield the ultimate decision. Curtis Flowers is an African-American who was charged with the murder of four people at the Tardy Furniture store in 1996. The main motive was that he was fired from the store two weeks prior to the incident. The case was far from straightforward: it hinged a few shaky pieces of evidence. The murder weapon has never been found, and investigators relied fully on ballistics, which is subject to criticism. Not a single person witnessed the murder itself, and the only testimony that was taken seriously by the court was that of Odell Hallmon.
Flowers allegedly admitted to murdering four people in a conversation with Hallmon. The state might have made questionable decisions regarding Flowers’ case. First, investigators trusted Hallmon who was known for playing along with law enforcement for personal benefits. Second, the juror selection might have been skewed to represent the White population.
Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572, 588 U.S. ___. (2019). Supreme Court of the United States. Web.
Fuller, John Randolph. Introduction to Criminal Justice: A Brief Edition. Oxford University Press, 2018.
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In the Dark Season 2. APM Reports, 2019. Web.