On September 4, 2020, all charges against Mississippi death row prisoner Curtis Flowers were dismissed. Mr. Flowers was accused of murdering four people at a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi, in July 1996. He was tried six times, resulting in four convictions, all of which were overturned by higher courts. Mr. Flowers' case has spanned nearly 23 years, most of which he spent in prison.
In four of his six trials, Mr. Flowers was found guilty and sentenced to death by juries that had at most one Black member. The Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the first two convictions due to issues with improper evidence and other prosecutorial errors. His third conviction was overturned again by the state supreme court due to racial discrimination against potential Black jurors during the jury selection process. The fourth and fifth trials, which were the only two with more than one Black juror, ended in hung juries. The sixth conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2019, in a decision authored by Justice Kavanaugh that looked to the “extraordinary facts” across Mr. Flowers’ trials to find that the State’s peremptory strike of at least one Black prospective juror at the sixth trial was substantially and unconstitutionally motivated by discriminatory intent.
As discussed in the Project’s Year-End 2019 newsletter, Mr. Flowers was released on bail in December 2019 while continuing to face the threat of a seventh trial. The prosecutor in all six trials, Fifth Circuit District Attorney Doug Evans, recused his office from the case in January 2020. In his motion, Mr. Evans stated, “[w]hile I remain confident in both the investigation and jury verdicts in this matter, I have come to the conclusion that my continued involvement will prevent the families from obtaining justice and from the defendant being held responsible for his actions.”
After Mr. Evans’ recusal, the Montgomery County Circuit Court appointed the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office to take over the case. The Mississippi Attorney General’s Office assumed control in February 2020 and commenced an independent review of the evidence in Mr. Flowers’ case. In a motion filed on September 4, 2020, Attorney General Lynn Fitch asked the court to dismiss the charges against Mr. Flowers. Attorney General Fitch wrote that there is “no clear prosecution witness that incriminated Mr. Flowers who is alive and available and has not had multiple, conflicting statements in the record.” She further stated that other evidence pointed to alternative suspects and “possible exculpatory evidence” that was not previously presented in the case. The same day, Judge Joseph H. Loper dismissed the case with prejudice, putting an end to a legal battle that has spanned decades.
The same day that charges against Mr. Flowers were dismissed, Judge Debra Brown of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi dismissed a lawsuit filed by the NAACP and four Black plaintiffs against Mr. Evans for violating their constitutional rights by preventing African Americans from serving on juries. Judge Brown dismissed the case on procedural grounds but noted that “African Americans ‘won the right to serve on juries through the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 and the Civil Rights Act of 1875’…This Court’s ruling today is in no way intended to undermine this longstanding and crucial right. Nor is this decision intended to suggest that there is no merit to the plaintiffs’ claims in this case. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true.” Judge Brown also indicated that an action brought by the United States Department of Justice might lead to the accountability the plaintiffs sought.
In statements made after his client’s release, Mr. Flowers’ attorney, Rob McDuff of the Mississippi Center for Justice, stated that “[t]his prosecution was flawed from the beginning and was tainted throughout by racial discrimination. It should never have occurred and lasted far too long, but we are glad it is finally over.” In his statement, Mr. Flowers indicated his gratitude to the attorneys, family members, and members of the public who have supported him throughout his case. He stated, “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.” Mr. Flowers is the fifth individual to be exonerated from Mississippi death row since 1973.