Page last updated at 13:03 GMT, Thursday, 26 November 2009

Curtis Flowers faces 6th trial for the same crime

By Tom Mangold
Radio 4, Crossing Continents

Curtis Flowers, a 39-year-old African-American is to stand trial for an unprecedented sixth time for the murder of four people in Mississippi in 1996. So far, two of his trials have resulted in mistrials and three in convictions that were later overturned.

James Bibbs, also an African-American, was a juror in Mr Flowers's 2008 trial, which ended in a mistrial. He was the only one of the 12 to vote against a conviction.

James Bibbs
Juror James Bibbs was charged with perjury at Curtis Flowers fifth trial

At the end of the trial, Mr Bibbs was hauled in front of the judge, harangued, threatened, arrested in court, led away in handcuffs, charged with perjury and spent the night in prison.

Mr Bibbs is in his early 60s. He's a retired school teacher, a Vietnam veteran, a local football referee - a patently decent man who was shocked by what had happened.

"The judge got real loud, and he said 'you are lying, you committed perjury'. I was disappointed, all these years you do all these things for the community, then you are called a liar like that out in the public, it was degrading."

The judge's outburst (the perjury charge has since been quietly dropped) came in a case that is extraordinary for many reasons.


The prosecution of Curtis Flowers casts a sharp light on racial attitudes in America's South one year after the election of the nation's first black president.

Curtis Flowers
The trials of Curtis Flowers have been dogged by misconduct

He has been sentenced to death three times, only for each verdict to be overturned on appeal because of what the Mississippi Supreme Court described as prosecutorial misconduct. In one further trial, the jury failed to agree after dividing broadly on racial lines.

In the fifth trial, James Bibbs voted for acquittal, and a unanimous verdict was required.

Mr Flowers has spent 13 years on remand in prison.

The local district attorney, desperate to score a conviction in such a high-profile case, has played it dirty to win.

One of his tricks, exposed by a refreshingly impartial Mississippi Supreme Court, was to fiddle the jury selection to exclude black jurors.

Paradoxically, the DA is not generally held to be a racist himself.

Just to complicate matters even further, Curtis Flowers does have a strong case to answer.

He had a motive.

Tardy Furniture store, Winona Mississippi
The store in Winona Mississippi where four people were killed

Mr Flowers had been employed by the owner of a furniture store who sacked him. There was a dispute about money owing.

Subsequently someone walked into the store, shot the owner and then coldly massacred three other employees. Mr Flowers has never produced an alibi for that terrible morning.

For his defence, the forensic evidence against him is wafer thin, and some witness evidence is contentious.

Post-racial society

The murders took place in the small town of Winona, in the heart of a state with the worst civil rights record in the US.

Memorial to the Freedom Summer Murders
Mississippi was the first state to prosecute a successful civil rights case

Winona is not far from Philadelphia, where three civil rights workers were infamously murdered in the early 60s - a story captured in the film Mississippi Burning.

The lynchings, the cross burnings, the overt violence and discrimination have long since disappeared.

But even one year after Barack Obama and the dream of a post-racial society, the Flowers case shows how short the march away from old attitudes has been.

The local state senator, Lydia Chassaniol has won few African-American hearts by introducing a bill that would widen the jury pool in such a way that critics say would make it easier to select an all-white jury.

She has joined a local chapter of the right-wing Council for Conservative Citizens and addressed their annual conference.

Badges: top - supporting White Power, bottom - against Black Power
Badges like these show that racial tensions remain in Mississippi

"I'll talk to anyone who wants me to talk to them," the senator told me, stressing her role as official tourist booster for the state.

But meet members of the council, as I did, in a modest motel outside Winona, and the nature of this rump of the red-neck, good 'ole white boys, confederate-flag-wavers is striking.

Their hatred of inter-racial marriage, homosexuals, liberals (aka communists) identifies an atavistic streak that still remains 150 years after slavery.

As one of them told me: "It's all right for them (non-whites) to practise their culture but they should not take ours away from us. We are probably the most discriminated race in the country."

Mr Flowers faces a sixth trial next June. In Britain, natural justice would have made it likely that the prosecution would be dropped after the second mistrial.

But this is Winona, Mississippi and a black man accused of a quadruple murder will not be allowed to walk away.

Black president or not, the state and its judicial servants are not ready for that yet.

Crossing Continents: Mississippi Smouldering is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 26 November 2009 at 1100 GMT and repeated on Monday, at 2030 GMT.

You can also listen to Crossing Continents on the BBC iPlayer or subscribe to the podcast .

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