A Mississippi man who was released after 22 years in prison last year will not be tried for the seventh time in a quadruple homicide case, a judge ruled Friday after prosecutors told him they had no more credible witnesses.
Curtis Flowers was convicted several times in 1996 of a bloody murder and robbery in a small town furniture store. The US Supreme Court overturned the latest conviction in June 2019, citing racial prejudice in the selection of the jury.
"Today I am finally free from the injustice that locked me in a box for almost twenty-three years," Flowers said in a statement released by his lawyer. "I was asked if I had ever thought that day would come. I have been blessed with a family that has never given up on me, and with them by my side, I knew it would be."
Montgomery County Circuit judge Joseph Loper signed the order Friday after the attorney general who took over the case admitted the evidence was too weak to proceed with any further trial.
"With the evidence we have today, there is no key prosecutor … who is alive, available, and has multiple conflicting statements on file," wrote Assistant Attorney General Mary Helen Wall in a file presented to Loper on Friday.
Four people were shot dead on July 16, 1996 in the Tardy Furniture Store in Winona. They were the 59 year old owner Bertha Tardy and three employees: 45 year old Carmen Rigby, 42 year old Robert Golden and 16 year old Derrick "Bobo" Stewart. Some of the victims' relatives have maintained their belief that flowers are the killer.
Flowers was convicted four times in the murders: twice for single murders and twice for all four murders. Two other court cases with all four deaths ended in legal proceedings.
Every Flowers belief has been nullified. In June 2019, the US Supreme Court overturned the conviction and death sentence from Flowers' sixth trial, which took place in 2010. Judges said prosecutors showed an unconstitutional pattern of expulsion of African-American jurors in the trials of Flowers, who is black.
The Supreme Court ruling came after American Public Media's In the Dark investigated the case. Crucially, the 2017 and 2018 podcast recorded the prison's informant, Odell Hallmon, and retracted his testimony that Flowers confessed to him. Hallmon's story about the confession had been important evidence for later trials, but he told the podcast on a smuggled phone behind bars that his story was "a pile of fantasies, a pile of lies."
"The only witness who produced direct evidence of guilt retracted his previous testimony and admitted that he lied when he said Mr. Flowers confessed to the murders in prison," Wall wrote on Friday.
The podcast also presented an analysis that found a long history of racial bias in the selection of the jury by Montgomery District Attorney Doug Evans and found evidence that another man may have committed the crimes. Evans stepped down from the case after Attorney General Lynn Fitch took office in January.
"This law enforcement has been flawed from the start and has been ravaged by racial discrimination throughout," said defense attorney Rob McDuff of the Mississippi Center for Justice. "It should never have happened and it took far too long, but we're glad that it's finally over."
Following the Supreme Court ruling, Flowers was removed from death row at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman and taken to a regional prison in the central city of Louisville, Mississippi. He remained in detention because the original murder charge was still active.
At the request of Flowers' attorneys, Loper noted a $ 250,000 bond issue. Flowers was released in December after posting 10% of that amount. The judge ruled Friday that all but $ 10 of the $ 25,000 should be returned to Matthew Popoli, who donated the money to support Flowers. Popoli had remained anonymous until Friday.
Winona is near the intersection of Interstate 55, Mississippi's main north-south thoroughfare, and US Highway 82, which runs east to west. It is approximately a half-hour drive from the Mississippi Delta plains. Among the 4,300 inhabitants, around 48% are black and 44% are white. Figures from the Census Bureau show that around 30% live in poverty.