Saturday, June 19, 2010

Curtis Flowers Update: Prosecution Presents Case In Murder Trial

Prosecution Presents Case In Murder Trial
by Amanda Sexton Editor and Publisher
The Winona Times

Read more: Winona - Prosecution presents case in murder trial

WINONA - The prosecution is currently presenting its case before a jury of 11 whites and one black in the sixth capital murder trial of Curtis Flowers. Opening statements began last Thursday after more than three days of jury selection.

Nearly 600 jurors were initially summoned for the trial, and after an intense vetting process by the court, prosecution and defense, 45 jurors were available for final selection. The remaining jurors would face peremptory strikes from both sides before a jury of 12 with three alternates was seated.

Alison Steiner, counsel for the defense, motioned the court to continue the voir dire questioning through the entire remaining panel and asked the court to then shuffle the jury due to an uneven race ratio.

"We started out with 45 percent black jurors and 55 percent white," Steiner said. "Right now, we have 72 percent white and 28 percent black. I ask the court to voir dire all of the jurors and then shuffle the jury. I know this is unprecedented, but the [ratio] is statistically significant."

Steiner also asked that because there were only nine African American jurors left for selection, the prosecution be "precluded from peremptory strikes."

Judge Joseph Loper denied the defenses motion, saying he did not see a race issue here.

"There were countless numbers of black jurors who said they could not be impartial," Loper said. "Mr. Flowers' family is prominent and well thought of, and he also has a large family and extended family."

Loper said the jury was randomly drawn, and both the prosecution and defense were present during the pooling and can attest to receiving a random jury pool.

"Just because you don't like the jury doesn't mean you get to throw it out," Loper said. "Neither side gets to pick the jury."

After Loper's ruling, Steiner motioned the judge to throw out the entire jury and begin again with a new panel.

"The entire venire should be set aside and squashed because of the defendant's sixth and 14th amendment rights of a fair trial as well as a local trial," Steiner argued.

Loper responded, "You don't get do-overs in court. There is no rational basis to grant that motion. I've found no findings that he couldn't get a fair trial. There is no basis for a dismissal."

Opening statements

After seating the jury Thursday, opening statements were heard.

District Attorney Doug Evans, along with assistant district attorneys Clyde Hill and Mike Howie, outlined the state's case against Flowers as the one guilty of murdering four people at Tardy Furniture Store on July 16, 1996, and he explained that through an array of physical evidence and eye witnesses accounts the state will prove that Flowers is guilty of four counts of capital murder. In the case of a conviction, the state is seeking the death penalty.

Defense counsel Ray Charles Carter told the jury that that the state's case is made up of circumstantial evidence and unreliable witness accounts that were driven by a $30,000 reward offered by the families of the victims. He said that police botched the criminal investigation and fixated on Flowers as a suspect without pursuing other possible parties.

First on the scene

Winona Chief of Police Johnny Hargrove was the state's first witness to give testimony before the jury.

Hargrove was the officer who responded to the scene after longtime Tardy Furniture employee Sam Jones discovered the scene.

Hargrove entered the furniture company and found the bodies of three people, Bertha Tardy, Carmen Rigby, and Robert Golden, and a fourth, Derrick "BoBo" Stewart critically injured. He called for paramedics, and Barry Eskridge of MedStat Ambulance Service responded. Stewart was transported to a Jackson hospital and later died from his injuries.

Hargrove said he and Eskridge saw bloody footprints near the bodies, and he secured the crime scene and called Mississippi State Highway Patrol investigators to head up the investigation.

During cross-examination, Carter asked Hargrove if he wrote any reports about the scene.

"I let the investigators handle all of this," Hargrove said. "When I got to the scene, I called for help [from other agencies]."

In addition, Carter asked Hargrove about the $30,000 reward offered in the case, and he said he remembered the reward information being posted in the newspaper and around the community. He also said to his knowledge, none of the witnesses ever received any money for their testimony.

Hargrove was in his first year as Winona's chief of police at the time of the murders, but he had been with the department for eight years prior to his promotion.

On rebuttal, Evans said, "You called in help so you wouldn't get criticized, but you are still getting criticized, right?"

Hargrove was followed by the recited testimony of the late Sam Jones who found the victims. Jones passed away last year, and his testimony from a previous trial was entered into evidence.

Expert witnesses

Melissa Schoene with the Mississippi Crime Lab took the stand and related to the jury the investigation of the crime scene. Shoene dusted for fingerprints and searched for other evidence, and she also photographed bloody foot prints found in the store which were determined to have been made by a Grant Hill Fila athletic shoe between the sizes of 10 and 11.

State pathologist Stephen Hayne, who performed the autopsies on all four victims in this case, testified that each victim had been shot one time, execution-style, with the exception of Robert Golden who was shot twice in the head. He also explained to the court his process of recovering bullet fragments and sending them to the Mississippi Crime Lab for analysis. Photos from the autopsy and bullet fragments from several of the victims were admitted into evidence by the prosecution.

Eyewitness testimony

Eyewitness Patricia Hollmon Odom-Sullivan, Flowers' next door neighbor at the time of the murders, testified to seeing Flowers the morning of the murders at approximately 4:45 a.m. as she took her morning walk. She said that she spoke to Flowers, but when he did not acknowledge her greeting, she was upset and returned home without making the second leg of her walk.

Later at approximately 7:30 a.m., Sullivan said she saw Flowers "coming across the hill from Powell Street." She said that he was wearing a white shirt, black pants, and a pair of Grant Hill Fila athletic shoes. She said a little while later, she saw him leave the house again from the back door as she hung laundry to dry.

On cross-examination, Carter asked Sullivan how she remembered Flowers’ shoes. Sullivan said she purchased two pairs of the Grant Hill Fila shoes for her young sons after they admired Flowers' pair.

Carter questioned Sullivan on how she could afford two pair of the pricey shoes without a job at the time, and Sullivan responded that she "had a man" that gave her financial assistance at the time.


Retired sheriff Bill Thornburg took the stand after Sullivan and explained how he learned of the crime at Tardy Furniture the morning of the murder.

"I was in Justice Court that morning when I got the call," Thornburg said. "I ran and got [Highway Patrolman] James Taylor Williams who was in the Justice Court office and we rushed to the store."

Thornburg said he met Hargrove and officer Kenny Townsend at the scene, and upon entrance into the store, he saw spent shell casings.

"They were .380 caliber casings," Thornburg said.

Thornburg stated that within 10 minutes of his arrival at the crime scene, he was alerted to an automobile burglary at Angelica sewing factory located on Church Street. A gun was reported stolen from the car's glove compartment.

Thornburg and Williams went to the factory and learned that the gun was a .380 caliber semi-automatic handgun stolen from the car of Doyle Simpson, an employee at the factory.

Thornburg said he eventually went to the home of Simpson's mother and gathered fired rounds from the gun in question from a post in the back yard which Simpson used for target practice. The rounds were sent to the Mississippi Crime Lab where they were tested against the bullet fragments recovered from the victims.

In addition, Thornburg said during a search of Flowers' home with girlfriend Connie Moore, an empty box for a size 10-and-a-half Grant Hill Fila athletic shoes was recovered.

On cross-examination, Thornburg told the court that he did not make any reports during the investigation but reported his findings to the lead investigators in the case from the Highway Patrol and the District Attorney's office.

Carter showed the court that Thornburg's first formal statement was made on February 1997, months after the crime was committed.

Firearms Expert

Ballistics analyst David Ballash testified that he was "100 percent certain" the bullets recovered from the post in Simpson's mother's yard were shot from the same weapon that was used in the murders.

"The gun had six lands and groves with a right twist," he testified.

Ballash also explained to the court where gunshot residue would be found on a person that recently fired a weapon. He pointed out that residue would be located on the hand and the lower arm of the arm that fired the weapon.

He also said that the gunshot residue test should be performed on a suspect within four and six hours of the crime.

Eye witness accounts

Eye witness Elaine Ghoulston, another neighbor of Flowers, testified that she had seen Flowers prior to the day of the murders wearing a pair of Grant Hill Fila athletic shoes.

During cross examination, Carter asked how she could remember Flowers wearing those particular shoes when she could not remember other shoes he wore while living across the street.

"Those shoes were very popular at the time, and Curtis always kept them really white," Ghoulston said.

Katherine Snow, an employee at Angelica, testified that she saw Curtis Flowers leaning against the driver's door of Doyle Simpson's car prior to the gun being discovered missing. She said she knew Flowers for many years and recognized him that morning, but when police questioned her that afternoon, she told them she did not know who the man was. She did say she would recognize him if she saw him again. It was not until several months later when investigators showed her a photo lineup that she named him as the man she saw that morning.

"I was scared," Snow said. "I was scared for my family."

Carter asked Snow why she did not immediately tell police the identity of whom she saw that morning and ask police to protect her.

"I wanted no part of this," Snow said. "I was scared I would go home and see my kids face down."

James Edward Kennedy, who resides near Angelica, testified that he saw Flowers in front of his house at approximately 7:15 a.m. the morning of the murder walking north into town.

When asked by the defense if he only went to the police after he discovered the $30,000 reward, Kennedy said, "I went to the police after I heard people were dead."

Edward Lee McChristian also testified that he saw Flowers in front of his home on Academy Street between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m. on the morning of the murders. He said he was standing on the porch of his home talking to three friends when Flowers passed by. One of his friends spoke to Flowers.

Mary Jeanette Fleming told the court that on the morning of the murders, after she dropped her car off at Weed Brothers Body Shop located behind Tardy Furniture, she walked home via Campbell Street. There she passed Flowers, who she said was heading into downtown Winona.

Fleming said she knew Flowers, and the two exchanged greetings as they passed.

The defense questioned Fleming on why she waited to tell police about her encounter with Flowers that morning.

"[I didn't tell them because I didn't want to be in it, and I still don't want to be in it," Fleming said.

Steiner also asked Fleming about the reward being offered.

"I saw the poster around town for the reward," Fleming said. "I know where you are going. I don't do anything for money. Money don't phase me."

The testimony of the late Porky Collins from a previous trial was read to the jury. Collins testified that he had seen Flowers and another man arguing in front of Tardy Furniture the morning of the murders. After witnessing two men arguing and using bold arm motions, Collins even made the block to get a better look.

"I thought they might fight," Collins said.

Later, Collins picked out Flowers from a police photo array.

Odell Hollmon, brother to Patricia Hollmon Odom-Sullivan, was the state's next witness. Hollmon, who is currently serving time in a Mississippi correctional facility on unrelated crimes, entered the courtroom in his prison issued uniform.

Hollmon, an inmate with Flowers, testified in a previous trial on behalf of the defense, saying his sister was lying about seeing Flowers that morning with the intention of collecting the reward money. Later, at his mother's urging, Hollmon recanted his statement and called the prosecution to tell them he lied about his sister's motives. In addition, he told prosecutors that Flowers confessed to the murders.

Defense counsel questioned Hollmon about his reason for lying about his sister, and he stated that prison makes someone unreasonable. He said Flowers had cigarettes, and he said he would lie to get those cigarettes.

Hollmon said he is facing declining health and wants to "get his conscience right."

Hollmon admitted to the jury that he was diagnosed with HIV.


Former Highway Patrol Master Sergeant Jack Matthews, investigator on the case, testified that Flowers became a suspect in the murders on July 18, 1996, after his second interview with investigators.

Matthews said on the day of the murders, Flowers was brought in for questioning at approximately 1:30 p.m. and was questioned by him and his partner, Wayne Miller, at the Winona Police Department. A gunshot residue test was performed on Flowers, and one particle of residue was discovered after Mississippi Crime Lab analysis.

Matthews said during the first interview with Flowers, the defendant said he woke at 6:30 a.m. when Moore went to work. He said he was babysitting her two young children. Matthews said Flowers explained that he made breakfast around 9 a.m. and then went to his sister Pricilla’s home on the next street. He also said that Flowers told him he went to an area convenient store.

Matthews said during questioning on July 18, Flowers told him that he woke between 9:30 and 10 a.m. He went to his sister’s later that day and went to the store for beer, chips, and cigarettes.

When Matthews asked about the children, Flowers told him that they were at their grandparents’ home a short distance away. He told investigators he was never on the east side of Highway 51 that day.

Defense counsel asked Matthews if the investigation had ever focused on any other suspects in the case. Matthews replied that they did investigate other individuals, but all leads led back to Flowers.

Testimony continued Wednesday morning with testimony from Roxanne Ballard, the daughter of victim Bertha Tardy.

The state rested its case on Wednesday morning.

 ***W.E. A.L.L. B.E. News & Radio Special: The Persecution Of Curtis Flowers***

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