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Thursday, June 24, 2010
Jury Finds Flowers Guilty,Gets Death Penalty
by Amanda Sexton Editor and Publisher
WINONA - It took just 35 minutes Friday afternoon for a Montgomery County jury to find Curtis Giovanni Flowers guilty of four counts of capital murder. With much longer deliberations on Flowers' penalty Saturday, the jury unanimously agreed to a sentence of death.
Flowers was convicted of the capital murders of Bertha Tardy, 59, Robert Golden, 42, Derrick "BoBo" Stewart, 16, and Carmen Rigby, 45, on July 16, 1996 at Tardy Furniture Store in Winona. The sixth murder trial for Flowers, the first three were overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court and trials four and five ended in a hung jury.
“Just to have that verdict [is a relief],” Benny Rigby, husband of victim Carmen Rigby, said.
“It is like going through six funerals,” Rigby said of how the families endured six trials. “It is like experiencing six deaths for that person.”
Rigby said he was overwhelmed by the community’s willingness to serve on the jury, and he said he has great respect for the final jury panel’s ability to sit through such long preceedings.
“The jury that was actually seated for the duration of the trial which was longer than before makes you proud to be an American,” Rigby said. “We have the greatest people here than anywhere.”
Rigby also said that he was grateful for the local media coverage of the trial.
“It was very fair,” Rigby said.
Defense Attorney Ray Charles Carter told the Greenwood Commonwealth that another appeal is imminent.
"Based on what we saw happen here, I can't imagine it failing, but we'll see," Carter stated.
Throughout the trial defense council motioned the court repeatedly for a mistrial due to a lack of diversity on the jury. However, Judge Joseph H. Loper, Jr. denied each motion, stating that during jury selection, all potential jurors that were excused were done so for "race-neutral" reasons.
Following the swift verdict, defense council Alison Steiner again motioned the court for a mistrial.
"The jury barely had time to go to the bathroom and clear their throats before they had a verdict," Steiner said.
Steiner cited Batson vs. Kentucky, a case in which the Supreme Court ruled that a prosecutor's use of peremptory challenge may not be used to exclude jurors based solely on their race. This case was the basis for Flowers' third trial being overturned.
Prosecutor Doug Evans responded, "Your honor, neither side used up all of their [peremptory] strikes. If they didn't like the jury, they could strike them."
Loper again denied the motion and read into the record the reasons each potential African American juror was struck from consideration. The most prevalent reason being a close connection with Flowers' family and not being able to be an objective juror.
Steiner also motioned for Loper to dismiss the case due to allegations of jury misconduct.
Defense intern Maria Grandas testified that she and two other interns witnessed a juror conversing with a Mississippi Highway Patrol officer while smoking during a court recess.
Bailiff Richard Whitfield, who was with the jurors at the time of the incident, disputed Grandas' eye witness account.
"I saw no improper conduct from any law enforcement officer," Whitfield said. "There was nothing out of the way as far as I'm concerned."
Whitfield said a juror asked the trooper a question that Whitfield said had nothing to do with the case. He also said the trooper did not respond to the juror.
Loper denied the defense's motion.
Flowers' defense team unfolded its case beginning last Wednesday, reiterating mistakes made during the investigation.
Mike McSparrin, a fingerprint expert from the Mississippi Crime Lab, testified that no fingerprint evidence submitted through the investigation matched that of Flowers. This included prints taken from the car of Doyle Simpson and a shoe box that once contained a pair of Grant Hill Fila athletic shoes.
Firearms and ballistics expert Steve Byrd countered the state's ballistic expert by saying he could not definitively link the bullets from Simpson's weapon, the supposed murder weapon, with bullet fragments from the scene.
Central to the defense's case was the method and execution of the investigation by police and investigators.
James Taylor Williams, a retired Mississippi Highway Patrolman, testified to his participation in the investigation, especially bloody footprints found at the crime scene and the collection of bullets from a post at the home of Doyle Simpson's mother. Williams said he could not remember seeing the bloody footprints while he was at the crime scene.
Flowers' aunt, Essie Ruth Campbell, testified that as she sat on the porch of Winona Manor nursing facility located on Middleton Road in Winona, she saw her brother's car pass by on the morning of the murders. However, she said that she could not see the driver of the vehicle.
During cross-examination, Evans probed Campbell about what she saw, and if she could be sure the car was that of Simpson's due to the distance from the porch to Middleton Road.
Campbell said she knew Simpson's car, and she was sure of what she saw.
Latarsha Blissett, a relative of Clemmie Fleming who testified that she saw Flowers running west on Carrollton Street behind Tardy Furniture the morning of the murders, testified that investigators questioned her after the murders.
Blissett said investigators tried to entice her with the $30,000 reward because she was looking to purchase a mobile home. Blissett said investigators questioned her about Flowers' shoe size, but she did not know that information.
Blissett also said that Clemmie Fleming told her that she was only testifying because she was promised her debt to Tardy Furniture would be eliminated.
The prior testimony of Billy James Glover of Carrollton was read to the jury, as Glover did not appear.
Glover, a friend of Flowers' brother-in-law, testified that on the morning of the murders, he saw Flowers at the home of his sister, Pricilla Ward, and spoke to him for nearly 20 minutes.
Glover said due to rain that day, he was not working and went to pick up James Ward for a fishing trip. He said he arrived at the home around 9 a.m.
During cross-examination, Evans questioned Glover about his time table because it rained the afternoon of July 16, 1996, not the morning. Glover stated that he lived in Carrollton and there was a "light mist" falling as he drove to Winona to pick up Ward.
Kittery Jones, first cousin of Curtis Flowers, testified for the defense that investigators questioned him about Flowers.
He said on the day of the murders, while working at Tyler Holmes Memorial Hospital, he learned of the murders at Tardy Furniture from his mother.
"I was concerned that Curtis worked there," Jones said. "I didn't know if he was still working there at the time."
Jones said he was interviewed by District Attorney investigator John Johnson at the Winona Police Department, and that Johnson, as well as Evans whom he said was in the interrogation room, told him he could receive $15,000 in reward money if he gave them information about the murders.
"Doug Evans told me that if I didn't tell them about Curtis, I could get locked up for obstruction of justice," Jones said.
Jones also said that Winona Chief of Police Johnny Hargrove told him that the investigation was "barking up the wrong tree" by focusing on Flowers.
Evans rebutted Jones testimony.
"After all of these years, you are now saying I was there," Evans said. "You have a pretty good reason to lie, don't you?"
Mary Ella Fleming, sister of state's witness Clemmie Fleming, testified that her sister could not have seen Flowers running from Tardy Furniture the day of the murders because Clemmie Fleming was at her home at that time.
"I remember saying that Clemmie and me were supposed to go down [to Tardy Furniture] to pay a bill, and I'm glad we didn't go because we would have been caught in there," Mary Ella Fleming said.
During cross-examination, Evans said that Clemmie Fleming testified that Mary Ella Fleming tried to keep her from testifying.
"Isn't it true that your brother, Robert, was, in fact, sued by Tardy Furniture," Evans asked.
Mary Ella Fleming stated that she knew nothing of that.
Connie Moore, Flowers' live-in girlfriend at the time of the murders, took the stand and disputed testimony made by state witnesses Elaine Ghoulston and Patricia Hollmon Odom-Sullivan. She testified that Ghoulston's house was 100 feet from her home on McNutt Street, not 50 feet as stated by Ghoulston. She also said that she and Hollmon were not good friends, although Hollmon testified that they were close and that she was the godmother of Moore's daughter.
As for the Grant Hill Fila athletic shoes, Moore testified that the box found by investigators contained her son's shoes, not Flowers’.
Moore said she purchased three pair of Grant Hill Fila athletic shoes for her children, and an empty shoe box once containing shoes belonging to her son, Marcus, was a storage box for Christmas and hair bows.
Moore also told the court the $200 found in the headboard of her bed belonged to her, as she recently cashed her paycheck. She said after finding the money and counting it, the police returned the money to her.
On cross-examination, Evans showed her a pair of size 10-and-a-half Nike athletic shoes collected from Flowers by police during Flowers' initial questioning. Moore claimed those shoes did not belong to Flowers.
"These are not even Curtis' shoes?" Evans asked. "These shoes that the judge took off him at the prison."
Moore answered no.
Evans also asked Moore about her prior testimony where she stated that she did not turn over the size 10-and-a-half Grant Hill Fila athletic shoes intentionally.
"I must have misunderstood your question then," Moore testified.
The defense called District Attorney investigator John Johnson to the stand to explain technicalities of the investigation, in particular, keeping accurate notes and reporting findings.
Johnson, the former Winona chief of police, testified that he and Doug Evans went to the scene of the crime the morning of the murders where they joined Mississippi Highway Patrol investigators Jack Matthews and members of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department and the Winona Police Department.
Johnson said he and Matthews set up a table in an area in the front of Tardy Furniture and began questioning witnesses. He said he was briefed by Winona chief of police Johnny Hargrove about that morning's events and told that one of the victims was found alive and transported to the hospital. Johnson said Hargrove told him that Sam Jones, a longtime employee of Tardy Furniture, discovered the bodies and called the police.
"Jones was so emotional the day of the murders, I thought it was best to wait a few days to question him," Johnson said.
Johnson also testified that he considered Matthews the lead investigator on the case and that Hargrove and the Winona Police Department were in a supportive role the entire investigation.
Johnson also testified that he walked the route Flowers supposedly took the day of the murders to search for evidence.
"I pulled up manhole covers and walked ditches," Johnson said.
Carter questioned Johnson about reporting his actions and findings appropriately during the investigation, and questioning of this type took nearly four hours.
"With Porky Collins, you didn't take his statement until March 1997, after Flowers was arrested?" Carter asked.
In addition, Carter asked if any other suspects were considered during the investigation, and Johnson responded that all evidence lead investigators back to Flowers.
Retired Mississippi Highway Patrol supervisor Wayne Miller was called to the stand after Johnson. Miller made a video recording of the scene, and he testified that Sam Jones, who discovered the bodies, was the only witness inside the crime scene.
Miller also created two photo line-ups Porky Collins used to identify Flowers.
"He said 'I know that is the person I saw at Tardy's'," Miller said. "His exact words were 'I just identified the person I saw at Tardy's'."
Carter asked Miller about elements of the investigation, especially about reporting and note-taking by investigators.
Retired Winona Police Department captain, Liz VanHorn, was called by the defense next, and she testified that she transported Latarsha Blissett to Greenwood to be questioned by Highway Patrol Investigators. VanHorn said she did not sit in on the interrogation, and she had no knowledge if a report or recording of the interview was made.
Motion to exclude
Following defense testimony, Steiner motioned the judge to exclude portions of police testimony and physical evidence collected by police due to improper police procedure.
Former Jackson Chief of Police Robert Johnson testified outside the presence of the jury that proper investigation protocol was not followed by investigators during the investigation of the crime.
"If there is no report, it didn't happen," Johnson said. "That is just police standards. Smaller departments have the same standards as larger departments.
Johnson, who was allowed to sit in during the testimony of witnesses, said the recurring theme during the investigation was the lack of reporting by officers. In addition, he said that the early focus on Flowers with the exclusion of all others was not proper.
"The investigation is not complete at this point," Johnson said. "That is my opinion."
After reviewing the defense's motion, Loper denied the motion.
"The state has no standard protocol for police investigations," Loper said. "If so, every police department would have a manual. There is no valid way to measure a police investigation because there is no standard."
On rebuttal, Evans called Frank Ballard, son-in-law of victim Bertha Tardy. Ballard testified that after the murders, he and his wife, Roxanne, took over business operations of Tardy Furniture.
Ballard told the court that witness Clemmie Fleming's debt was not eliminated for her testimony in the trial as stated by a defense witness.
"The debt was turned over to collections," Ballard said.
Ballard said eventually, as is procedure in Montgomery County Justice Court, the co-signing party was sought to repay the debt. In Fleming's case, her brother, Robert, was responsible for that debt.
Wanda Weeks Robertson testified that she worked with Clemmie Fleming at Multicraft during the investigation, and Robertson convinced Fleming to talk with Johnson about what she said she saw the day of the murders.
Following a verdict of guilty on all counts, the jury heard testimony from the victims' families and the friends and family of Curtis Flowers to determine whether a sentence of death or life in prison without the possibility of parole should be handed down.
Roxanne Ballard, daughter of Bertha Tardy, told the jury that while pregnant with her second son, she learned that her mother had been murdered. This event changed her life and her personality.
"[My children] will never know the person I was before that day," Ballard said.
Brian Rigby, son of victim Carmen Rigby, testified that not only did he lose his mother that fateful day, but he also lost a friend.
Rigby said that he had just graduated from high school when his mother was killed, and what should have been a happy and exciting time in his life became a nightmare with the murder of his mother.
In addition, he said that his friend Derrick "BoBo" Stewart was killed that day as well.
"The reason he was there that day was because of me," Rigby said. "I got him that job."
The defense called three pastors to testify to Flowers' faith and his ability to positively influence other prisoners if he were spared the death penalty.
Flowers, a talented gospel singer, sang with his father, Archie Flowers, and according to Carroll Montgomery Regional Correctional Facility chaplain, Rev. Billy Little, Flowers participated in worship services and sang often while he resided in that facility.
Prison consultant James Aiken testified to the jury that during his 13 year incarceration, Flowers did not have one violation on his prison record, and if he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, he would not be allowed the freedom many people believe.
"He will be in his cell 23 hours a day," Aiken said.
Flowers' daughter, Chrystal Ghoston,16, took the stand and told the jury of her recently discovering that Flowers was her father. She said that since that time, she has been building a relationship with her father. Her mother, Kenyetta Knight, confirmed to the jury that Ghoston was Flowers' daughter, and she said her daughter was never ashamed that Flowers stood accused of capital murder.
Flowers' mother, Lola Flowers, told the jury about Flowers’ upbringing in a large family.
"Curtis would always have them laughing," Lola Flowers said.
A video of a young Curtis Flowers singing gospel was played during the testimony of Flowers' father, Archie. Archie Flowers said he also sympathized with the victims and their families.
"I feel about it," Archie Flowers said. "I've prayed about it. I've prayed with Curtis about them."
Archie Flowers also testified that Flowers' conviction would never change his love for his son.
Read more: Winona - Jury finds Flowers guilty gets death penalty
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