The basic facts of the Curtis Flowers murder case are these: On the morning of July 16, 1996, someone walked into a furniture store in downtown Winona, Mississippi, and shot four employees in the head. Police charged Curtis Flowers with all four murders. After 22 years of trials, mistrials and reversals, Flowers has faced juries six times for the same crime. He has been on death row since the first conviction, and the most recent one is being appealed. Many believe he is innocent.
I think it can be stipulated that this has been a badly botched prosecution, whether Flowers is innocent or not. There is no limit on how many times someone can be tried for the same crime, as long as the trials end in mistrials or convictions. The Flowers case suggests that we need a limit. If the system can’t get a conviction properly after a reasonable number of attempts—I don’t know what a reasonable number is, but I am confident that it is less than six—then the accused should go free. So far, Flowers has been in prison for over two decades without being convicted. That’s wrong.
It would be nice and reassuring if a knee-jerk liberal columnist like the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, whose background is in journalism and mathematics, not law, could inform the public about an outrageous case like this without mucking it up with ideological leaps of logic, unwarranted conclusions and progressive talking points. He can’t help himself, though.
For his entire op-ed, he relies on this podcast about the case. A podcast about a legal case is like a documentary: it has a point of view baked into it. I admire the podcast, but it isn’t evidence. It isn’t the trial transcripts, or the decisions overturning the three convictions that were found to be flawed. Never mind: the Times writer sees “no good reason to believe that Curtis Flowers is guilty.”
That’s an irresponsible and incompetent statement. He wasn’t at any of the trials. He wasn’t on the jury. He didn’t observe the defendant during a trial. Mostly he has listened to a podcast, which is a second-hand analysis, making his third hand at best. Has he listened to any podcast arguing that Flowers is guilty? No, because there isn’t one. Until a jury hears the evidence and renders a verdict that stands up in appeal, nobody can say there is “no good reason” to believe that Curtis Flowers is guilty, or no good reason to say he is innocent. Until Flowers is found guilty, however, he is not guilty in the eyes of the law. That, however, has nothing to do with factual innocence.
Leonhardt also makes the unwarranted and unethical assumption that the last verdict against Flowers must be the result of there being only one African American on his jury. The fact that one of the reversals was based on unconstitutional bias in jury selection does not mean, nor does the record show, that the black jurors believed in Flowers innocence. This is a popular white liberal and black race-baiter fantasy: whites and blacks are both incapable of putting racial biases aside when sitting on juries. In the last trial, the one black juror must have voted to convict: how does that square with Leonhardt’s assumption? There was a mistrial when more blacks were on the jury in a previous trial, but the writer doesn’t know what they thought or how they voted. He just assumes he knows, because of their color.
Nice. And typical.
Leonhardt then leaps to a gross generality from the single case: “The United States suffers from a crisis of unjust imprisonment. The crisis has been caused partly by powerful, unaccountable prosecutors, like [Flowers prosecutor] Doug Evans And the costs are borne overwhelmingly by black men, like Flowers.”
What exactly is a “crisis?” How many wrongly convicted men makes it a crisis? One is too many, but perfection is impossible with any system. There is crisis of long standing in the failure of the system to insist on proper accountability for incompetent and unethical prosecutors, but neither Leonhardt nor anyone else knows how many wrongly prosecuted and convicted prisoners are in our institutions.
Then Leonhardt writes, “We now know that dozens of innocent people have been executed in recent decades.” The statement is false. Nobody knows that. There are institutions and websites that track such matters. One of them, the anti-death penalty Death Penalty Information Center, writes, “There is no way to tell how many of the more than 1,470 people executed since 1976 may also have been innocent. Courts do not generally entertain claims of innocence when the defendant is dead. Defense attorneys move on to other cases where clients’ lives can still be saved.” It then lists 15—not “dozens”— of men executed since 1989 who might have been innocent. Might. What does Leonhardt really “know,” then? Not much, but he’s happy to pass on his false certainty to Times readers.
Then Leonhardt neatly segues to the current progressive agenda cause of “mass incarceration,” thus mixing murderous apples with non-violent oranges. The thrust of the mass incarceration reform position is that the U.S. locks up too many non-violent offenders, and since blacks make up a disproportionate number of such offenders, this is racially biased in effect if not intent. Murderers, however, are not non-violent, and substituting the actual murderer that Leonhardt is certain—he’s heard the podcast, after all!—is out there for Curtis Flowers won’t change the size of the prison population one bit.