EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
WINONA, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi man whose murder conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court for racial bias was granted bond Monday and will be free for the first time in 22 years.
A judge set a bond of $250,000 for Curtis Flowers, but told him he will have to wear an electronic monitor. Supporters who joined others in the packed courtroom hugged Flowers after the judge announced his decision.
A prosecutor has not said whether he will try Flowers for a seventh time on the same charges. Four people were shot to death in July 1996 in the Tardy Furniture store in the north Mississippi town of Winona. Flowers, 49, has had four convictions overturned. He has been in custody since 1997.
Circuit Judge Joseph Loper said it was “troubling” that prosecutors have not responded to the defense motion to drop the charges against Flowers.
He said if prosecutors do not respond, “the state will reap the whirlwind” from him.
Supporters of Flowers hugged in the courtroom after court was dismissed.
During the sixth trial in 2010, Flowers was sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that conviction in June, finding that prosecutors had shown an unconstitutional pattern of excluding African American jurors in the trials of Flowers, who is black.
After the Supreme Court ruling, Flowers was moved off death row at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and taken to a regional jail in the central Mississippi town of Louisville.
Flower’s attorney Rob McDuff has argued that Mississippi law requires bail after two capital murder mistrials. McDuff asked Circuit Judge Joseph Loper on Monday to set bail and allow Flowers to be released from custody for the first time in 22 years.
“This case is unprecedented in the history of the American legal system,” McDuff told the judge. He said Flowers has spent 23 years in prison “without a lawful conviction to justify his incarceration” and he has an “exemplary” record of good behavior in prison.
Flowers’ attorneys are expected to argue at another hearing, not yet set, that the judge should dismiss the charges all together.
Assistant District Attorney William Hopper asked the judge to deny bond. He cited several examples of evidence that he said pointed to Flowers’ guilt. Hopper would not answer a reporter’s question about whether prosecutors plan to retry Flowers for what would be the seventh time.
Even though Flowers’ last conviction was overturned, the original murder indictment is still active against him.
If the judge agrees to a bail bond, it’s unclear how soon Flowers could be released. The timing depends on several factors, including whether bail money is readily available. Generally, at least 10% must be paid.
The four people killed on July 16, 1996, were store owner Bertha Tardy, 59, and three employees: 45-year-old Carmen Rigby, 42-year-old Robert Golden and 16-year-old Derrick “Bobo” Stewart.
A daughter of Tardy was among the spectators who filled most of the wooden benches in the 1970s-era courtroom on Monday. She sat across the aisle and one row back from Flowers’ daughter Crystal Ghoston, who sat in the front row.
Flowers appeared at the hearing wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and black and white striped tie.
Ghoston, 26, told The Associated Press that she had seen her father only once since he was imprisoned: about 10 years ago, and that even then she could only talk to him through a reinforced window. She said they write letters to each other and talk on the phone every few weeks, and that he wants to meet her 2-year-old daughter, who calls him “Paw-Paw.”
“We’re so much alike,” Ghoston said. “We laugh all the time on the phone.”
Ghoston, of Grenada, Mississippi, said her daughter’s favorite Disney character is Minnie Mouse. if her father is released, they will take their first-ever photo together and her father wants to take them to Disney World.
“He said, ‘I’m going to take her to see the whole Disney crew,'” Ghoston said.
Winona sits near the crossroads of Interstate 55, the major north-south artery in Mississippi, and U.S. Highway 82, which runs east to west. It about a half-hour’s drive from the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta. Among its 4,300 residents, about 48% are black and 44% are white. Census Bureau figures show that about 30% live in poverty.
In mid-November, four black voters and a branch of the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit asking a judge to permanently order Evans and his assistants to stop using peremptory challenges to remove African American residents as potential jurors because of their race.
The lawsuit cites an analysis of jury strikes by Evans from 1992 to 2017 by American Public Media’s “In the Dark” podcast. It found Evans’ office used peremptory strikes, which lawyers typically don’t have to explain, to remove 50% of eligible black jurors, but only 11% of eligible white jurors. The analysis was performed as part of a series of episodes questioning Flowers’ conviction in his sixth trial.
EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS