One morning nearly 22 years ago, four employees of a furniture store in a small Mississippi town were shot to death. For months afterward, local law enforcement seemed stumped by the crime. Eventually, the top prosecutor — Doug Evans — charged a former store employee, Curtis Flowers, a black man who had no criminal record.
The case since then has been unlike any other I’ve ever heard of. Evans has put Flowers on trial six separate times — even though no gun, fingerprints or other physical evidence ties Flowers to the crime and no witness even puts him at the store that day.
At each of the first three trials, Flowers was convicted, but the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out all three convictions. The first two times, it cited misconduct by Evans during the trial, and the third time it found that Evans had kept African-Americans off the jury. The justices called it as bad a case of such racial discrimination “as we have ever seen.”
The fourth trial was the first to have more than one black juror, and it ended with a hung jury. The fifth also had multiple black jurors and likewise ended in a mistrial. The sixth trial had only one black juror, and Flowers was convicted, thanks largely to dubious circumstantial testimony that Evans had coached witnesses to give.
I see no good reason to believe that Curtis Flowers is guilty. Yet today he sits in solitary confinement, on death row, in Mississippi’s Parchman Prison. He is serving his 22nd straight year behind bars, having never been released between convictions. He will turn 48 years old next week. His parents continue to visit him as often as possible.
His heartbreaking, enraging story is the subject of a new podcast — the second season of “In the Dark,” led by Madeleine Baran of American Public Media — that’s been downloaded more than 2 million times. The reporting and storytelling are fantastic, and I can’t capture all of it here. If you aren’t already listening to the podcast, I recommend it.
While the Flowers case is shocking in its details, it is all too typical in its broad strokes: The United States suffers from a crisis of unjust imprisonment. The crisis has been caused partly by powerful, unaccountable prosecutors, like Doug Evans. And the costs are borne overwhelmingly by black men, like Flowers.
We now know that dozens of innocent people have been executed in recent decades. Many others languish behind bars. My colleague Nicholas Kristof, in his latest column, told the story of Kevin Cooper, who’s on death row in California because of highly questionable evidence. Cases like these are the most extreme part of our mass-incarceration problem. As legal scholar Michelle Alexander has noted, a larger share of black Americans are imprisoned than black South Africans were during apartheid. “A human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch,” she has written.
When Americans today look back on the past, many of us wonder how our ancestors could have tolerated blatant injustices — like child labor, Jim Crow or male-only voting — for so long. When future generations look back on our era, I expect they will ask a similar question. They will be outraged that we forcibly confined a couple million of our fellow human beings to cages, often for no good reason.
President Donald Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, are trying to make the problem even worse, by locking up ever more people. But Trump and Sessions can’t squelch the burgeoning, bipartisan movement for criminal-justice reform. They can’t, because as the recent Pulitzer-winning author James Forman Jr. points out, criminal justice happens mostly at the local and state levels. “We should always remember that the fight is going to be at the local level,” Forman told NPR’s Terry Gross. “And, there, we continue to win.”
To take one example, manufactured jailhouse confessions are a common part of wrongful prosecutions (and are central to the Flowers case). With a shocking frequency, prosecutors and police coax so-called snitches to lie outright about what other prisoners say. In response, Texas enacted a law last year requiring the tracking of snitches and the disclosure of any plea deals to defense attorneys, who can then call the testimony into question in front of a jury. Rebecca Brown of the Innocence Project told me that the Texas law was “excellent” — and that the Illinois Legislature had passed an even better version, awaiting the governor’s signature.
Elsewhere, some district attorneys are trying to make the system fairer on their own. It’s happening in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities. Most prosecutors, after all, are decent, ethical public servants. One change involves “open-file” policies, which give the defense attorney access to all the evidence in a case. That may seem like an obvious step, and it’s the norm in civil trials. Yet it remains rare in criminal trials.
I don’t want to exaggerate the recent progress. As you read this column, thousands upon thousands of American citizens sit behind bars, unjustly denied their freedom. “Oooh, I miss Curtis,” his devastated father, Archie Flowers, says on the podcast. “Yes. It is rough. Rough, rough, rough, rough.”
But the Flowers family refuses to give up hoping for justice. Curtis Flowers’ sixth conviction is being appealed, and new evidence — uncovered by the podcast — seems likely to help that appeal.
If the Flowers family won’t give in to despair, nobody else should, either.