JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — In February 2017, among hundreds of emails and calls about story ideas received by the reporters of American Public Media’s podcast “In the Dark,” was a short email from a Mississippi woman.
She urged them to look into the case of Curtis Flowers, a man who had been tried six times for the same crime. The evidence against him was questionable, she said.
The investigative team was immediately interested, Madeleine Baran, host and lead reporter of “In the Dark,” said. How was it possible, they wondered, that a man could be tried so many times for the same crime?
This set off the investigation that would change Flowers’ life.
New evidence uncovered by “In the Dark” helped get Flowers’ case dismissed on Friday (Sept. 4), more than 23 years after his arrest.
After the news broke last week, Flowers removed his ankle monitor with the knowledge that he would never again have to face trial again in the case of a 1996 quadruple homicide at a furniture store in Winona.
“In this case something extraordinary happened,” Baran said Tuesday. “All you can do as a reporter is try to get to the bottom of things, to get to the truth. You don’t have any control, nor should you, over what happens next. But it was a pretty remarkable moment.”
Baran said the podcast never set out to prove Flowers’ guilt or innocence.
“As investigative reporters, we’re not trying to solve crimes, and we’re not interested in crimes itself,” Baran said. “We’re interested in these larger structures and powerful people and institutions. So for us from the very beginning this was a story about the power of prosecutors.”
“In the Dark” focused its spotlight on Doug Evans, district attorney for Mississippi’s Fifth Circuit Court District, who had a history of prosecutorial misconduct. Evans, a white man, was the one who decided to repeatedly try Flowers, who is Black.
Through the course of the podcast’s investigation, reporters interviewed prosecutors’ witnesses who recanted their statements, debunked forensic science and discovered an alternative suspect whose alibi fell apart under questioning. They also found that Evans’ office had a history of disproportionately keeping Black people off juries.
Baran said the most shocking turns in the case came in June 2019, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Flowers’ 2010 conviction after finding the white prosecutor had racially discriminated during jury selection, and in December, when Flowers walked out of a courthouse free on bond for the first time in more than 20 years.
The dismissal of Flowers’ charges by Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch on Friday was the most likely outcome after those developments, Baran said.
Flowers’ attorney, Rob McDuff with the Mississippi Center for Justice, said the podcast’s work was “instrumental in turning this case around and alerting the public to the injustice that occurred.”
“This was an extraordinary, thorough and professional job of investigative reporting,” McDuff said.
A YEAR IN MISSISSIPPI SPENT TRACKING DOWN SOURCES AND UNEARTHING DOCUMENTS
In 2017, a few months after receiving the email about Flowers, an investigative team of five to six reporters moved from Minnesota to Mississippi and began to dig. For about a year, they lived together, moving between Oxford, Greenwood, Water Valley and Jackson, Baran said.
Being on the ground in Mississippi was crucial to the investigation’s success, she said.
“By living in a place, we could really have the time to get to know a town and a community and a place and the people in the place... .” she said. “People would invite us to things, invite us to football games, they’d invite us to church. We felt very welcomed by a lot of people in Winona.”
Baran said because the locals saw reporters regularly around town and talking to other community residents, they were more open to speaking on the record about the case. Piecing together the criminal record of an alternate suspect required digging for files in an old plastics factory in Montgomery County and in other buildings elsewhere.
“It was especially important to live (in Mississippi) for a period of time,“Baran said. “It’s a place that’s complicated and had a lot of history. I wanted to get it right and do it justice.”
Over the next two years, they returned to Mississippi several times to cover developments in Flowers’ case.
INVESTIGATION LED TO RECANTED WITNESS STATEMENTS, DISCOVERY OF AN ALTERNATIVE SUSPECT
All the key witnesses against Flowers had died or recanted their testimonies, Fitch wrote in her motion for dismissal on Friday, and added, “Moreover, the Court was made aware of alternative suspects with violent criminal histories, as well as possible exculpatory evidence not previously considered.”
Among other things, the investigation by “In the Dark” found:
- Key prosecution witness Odell Hallmon lied when he said on the stand that he had not been offered anything in exchange for testifying Flowers had confessed in jail.
- Law enforcement had interviewed a different suspect with a violent criminal history, Willie James Hemphill — a fact which was not disclosed to the defense. Reporters also poked holes in Hemphill’s alibi.
- The forensic method used to link bullets to a gun belonging to Flowers’ step-uncle was faulty.
- Witnesses that placed Flowers on a route near the site of the murders the day of the crime were inconsistent in their retelling.
- The prosecutor’s office had a history of excluding black jurors. A data analysis by the podcast showed that Doug Evans’ office struck black people from the jury pool more than four times as often as it struck white people.
Additional new evidence was discovered by Flowers’ legal team, which included Hogan Lovells law firm, the Mississippi Innocence Project and Cornell Law School Capital Punishment Clinic.
Flowers, who did not comment for this story, released a statement Friday through his attorneys thanking God, his family, legal team and supporters.
“Today, I am finally free from the injustice that left me locked in a box for twenty three years. I want to say that I believe there are other men, men that I met on the row, whose cases deserve to be heard and considered,” Flowers said.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR ‘IN THE DARK’?
Baran said the podcast plans to continue covering developments related to Flowers’ case.
A big question remains: If Flowers’ didn’t commit the four murders at Tardy Furniture store, who did?
The reality is, Baran said, “there were still four people murdered and nobody arrested for that murder currently and families that have gone through six trials. So this is the kind of story where you can say the criminal justice system failed everyone.
”....I’d be interested to see what, if anything, law enforcement does regarding that criminal investigation.”
There’s also the question of whether Flowers will receive any civil compensation.
Back in Minnesota, reporters are now starting work on a new investigation for the podcast’s third season.
“I can’t say more about it,” Baran said.
For now, it will remain in the dark.