Sextuple Jeopardy: The Groundhog Day of Capital Murder Trials

By Browning, William | Reason, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Sextuple Jeopardy: The Groundhog Day of Capital Murder Trials


Browning, William, Reason


IN MISSISSIPPI early in the summer of 2010, emotionally spent jurors, some of them in tears, recommended that Curtis Giovanni Flowers be put to death for a quadruple murder. The judge agreed with the recommendation, sending Flowers to death row at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. The trial had lasted two weeks, and from beginning to end the Montgomery County Courthouse was filled with an unnerving sense of deja vu.

That's because the 41-year-old Flowers has now been sentenced to death four times for the same crime. The first three convictions were thrown out on appeal by the Mississippi Supreme Court. The fourth, handed down June 18, 2010, is currently on appeal at the state's highest court. Two other trials ended with hung juries. All told, Flowers has stood trial six times--a record in the history of American capital murder cases. He has become the judicial system's answer to Groundhog Day.

Prior to Flowers, the longest running capital murder case was that of Curtis Kyles, whom New Orleans prosecutors tried five times for a 1984 murder. Kyles' second jury sentenced him to death, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that conviction because prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense. After four mistrials due to hung juries, the charges against Kyles were dismissed in 1998, and he was released from prison, having spent 14 years behind bars.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"There is something shocking about the state repeatedly trying a case until it gets a jury to follow its will," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Cases like these, he argues, are why the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says no person should "be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb."

"The principle behind it is a restriction on abuse of power by the state by repeatedly putting someone through the ordeal of indictment and a trial," Dieter says. "This would seem to be just the kind of misuse of power that the amendment is aimed at."

Flowers' saga stands at the center of overlapping American judicial dysfunctions. The bulk of the case against him comes from the testimony of eyewitnesses and jailhouse snitches, two of the most historically unreliable sources of convictions in the United States. Prosecutorial misconduct led to the reversal of three convictions. Not only has that misbehavior gone unpunished, the same prosecutor has been prosecuting the same defendant with the same evidence for 15 years now. And the process throughout has been laced with the toxin that still poisons too much of the Mississippi justice: racism.

Four Murders, One Suspect

On the morning of July 16, 1996, 76-year-old Sam Jones Jr. was walking on a sidewalk in Winona, Mississippi, toward the corner of Front and Carrollton Streets, where he held a part-time position at the Tardy Furniture Company. It was a Tuesday. Jones' boss, Bertha Tardy, had called him that morning, reminding him to come help two new employees load a truck and make a delivery. At roughly 9:30 a.m., he pushed the store's front door open.

The first victim he saw was Derrick "Bobo" Stewart, one of the new employees. The 16-year-old high school student had been shot once in the back of the head. When Jones found him, Stewart was lying on the floor, struggling to breathe as his blood pooled up around him. "The blood was running over his eyes," Jones would later say. "And when I--every time his heart beat, blood covered his eyes over. And when it would clear off, well, his eyes were looking at me. And that's what hurt so."

Stewart died a week later. Testifying about the dying teenager more than 10 years afterward, Jones, a slight, elderly black man with a sad droop in his face, froze a crowded courtroom when he said simply, "I don't want to talk about that no more."

Jones next noticed Carmen Rigby lying on the floor. …

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