The Mississippi Man Tried Six Times for the Same Crime

Heartbreaking outrageous stories of injustice like this keep me taking action, especially for Americans with African ancestry. It’s ironic that America prides itself on our justice system when so many African-Americans do not get fair treatment. 

By David Leonhardt, Opinion Columnist, The New York Times, May 20, 2018

One morning nearly 22 years ago, four employees of a furniture store in a small Mississippi town were shot to death. For months afterward, local law-enforcement seemed stumped by the crime. Eventually, the top prosecutor — Doug Evans — charged a former store employee, Curtis Flowers, a black man who had no criminal record.

The case since then has been unlike any other I’ve ever heard of. Evans has put Flowers on trial six separate times — even though no gun, fingerprints or other physical evidence ties Flowers to the crime and no witness even puts him at the store that day.

At each of the first three trials, Flowers was convicted, but the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out all three convictions. The first two times, it cited misconduct by Evans during the trial, and the third time it found that Evans had kept African-Americans off the jury. The justices called it as bad a case of such racial discrimination “as we have ever seen.”

The fourth trial was the first to have more than one black juror, and it ended with a hung jury. The fifth also had multiple black jurors and likewise ended in a mistrial. The sixth trial had only one black juror, and Flowers was convicted, thanks largely to dubious circumstantial testimony that Evans had coached witnesses to give. I see no good reason to believe that Curtis Flowers is guilty.

Yet today he sits in solitary confinement, on death row, in Mississippi’s Parchman Prison. He is serving his 22nd straight year behind bars, having never been released between convictions. He will turn 48 years old next week. His parents continue to visit him as often as possible.

His heartbreaking, enraging story is the subject of a new podcast — the second season of “In the Dark,” led by Madeleine Baran of American Public Media — that’s already been downloaded more than two million times. The reporting and storytelling are fantastic, and I can’t capture all of it here. If you aren’t already listening to the podcast, I recommend it.

While the Flowers case is shocking in its details, it is all too typical in its broad strokes: The United States suffers from a crisis of unjust imprisonment. The crisis has been caused partly by powerful, unaccountable prosecutors, like Doug Evans. And the costs are borne overwhelmingly by black men, like Flowers.

We now know that dozens of innocent people have been executed in recent decades. Many others languish behind bars. My colleague Nicholas Kristof, in his latest column, told the story of Kevin Cooper, who’s on death row in California because of highly questionable evidence. Cases like these are the most extreme part of our mass-incarceration problem. As the legal scholar Michelle Alexander has noted, a larger share of black Americans are imprisoned than black South Africans were during apartheid. “A human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch,” she has written.

When Americans today look back on the past, many of us wonder how our ancestors could have tolerated blatant injustices — like child labor, Jim Crow or male-only voting — for so long. When future generations look back on our era, I expect they will ask a similar question. They will be outraged that we forcibly confineda couple million of our fellow human beings to cages, often for no good reason.

President Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, are trying to make the problem even worse, by locking up ever more people. But Trump and Sessions can’t squelch the burgeoning, bipartisan movement for criminal-justice reform. They can’t, because as the recent Pulitzer-winning author James Forman Jr. points out, criminal justice happens mostly at the local and state levels. “We should always remember that the fight is going to be at the local level,” Forman told NPR’s Terry Gross, “and, there, we continue to win.”

To take one example, manufactured jailhouse confessions are a common part of wrongful prosecutions (and are central to the Flowers case). With a shocking frequency, prosecutors and police coax so-called snitches to lie outright about what other prisoners say. In response, Texas enacted a law last year requiring the tracking of snitches and the disclosure of any plea deals to defense attorneys, who can then call the testimony into question in front of a jury. Rebecca Brown of the Innocence Project told me that the Texas law was “excellent” — and that the Illinois legislature had passed an even better version, awaiting the governor’s signature.

Elsewhere, some district attorneys are trying to make the system fairer on their own. It’s happening in Brooklyn, Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities. Most prosecutors, after all, are decent, ethical public servants. One change involves “open-file” policies, which give the defense attorney access to all of the evidence in a case. That may seem like an obvious step, and it’s the norm in civil trials. Yet it remains rare in criminal trials.

I don’t want to exaggerate the recent progress. As you read this column, thousands upon thousands of American citizens sit behind bars, unjustly denied their freedom. “Ooooh, I miss Curtis,” his devastated father, Archie Flowers, says on the podcast. “Yes. It is rough. Rough, rough, rough, rough.”

But the Flowers family refuses to give up hoping for justice. Curtis Flowers’s sixth conviction is still being appealed, and new evidence — uncovered by the podcast — seems likely to help that appeal.

If the Flowers family won’t give in to despair, nobody else should, either.

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Gov. Baker to sign justice reform bill today at 3 pm

By Katie Lannan
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICEbaker

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 13, 2018….Gov. Charlie Baker plans to sign a wide-ranging criminal justice reform bill into law Friday afternoon, advocates said.

“I have great news for you. Governor Baker plans to sign our bill, as is, at 3 p.m. today,” Cherish Casey of the Essex County Community Organization said at a State House press conference.

Casey’s declaration triggered applause and cheers from those in attendance.

The press conference was originally called to urge Baker to sign the bill but took on a celebratory mood as its backers thanked the lawmakers and others who got the long-awaited bill to the governor’s desk…..

As the press conference was unfolding, Baker was holding a meeting of his cabinet Friday morning at the State House.

Baker’s office confirmed he will sign the bill, at 3 p.m. in room 157 at the State House, and said he will also “discuss additional reforms that the administration plans to propose.”

Make every correctional officer a program officer

Gov. Baker [of Massachusetts] has proposed $640 million for the Department Image result for photo of a correctional officer FREEof Corrections [DOC] for 2019 PLUS a line item for $11 million for the training and hiring of 200 new correctional officers [COs]. The DOC now spends less than 2 percent on programs for incarcerated people.

Does this reflect our priorities or prepare people to return home? Some 92 percent of all incarcerated people will return home.

Another possibility is to transition toward the goal that all COs serve as program officers, who share a skill and/or knowledge with the people in their care. The program can be practically anything–culinary, GED preparation/tutoring, plumbing, carpentry, writing, running a small business, yoga/mindfulness, college or high school classes, computer repair/programming, job skills, trauma awareness/healing, or sales and communication skills, to name a few possibilities.

“The union would never go for it,” according to naysayers. What about tuning into the WIFM channel — What’s in it for me?

When every CO is a program officer, they:

  1. Would work in a safer environment because their relationships with incarcerated people would be transformed from adversarial and punishment to one of friendly guidance;
  2. Would have more interesting satisfying jobs, that go deeper than providing security and warehousing, with opportunities to help people;
  3. Might have less suicide and/or substance abuse disorder, better relationships at work and at home, and improved mental and physical health in the short and long term.

Wouldn’t that be motivation for the union to work toward constructive change within the system?

With a healthier environment, other problems might dissipate, such as contraband and drug distribution and use inside; gang membership; violence; mental illness; idleness and lack of motivation and rehabilitation.

New ideas are typically first ridiculed. More humane prisons in Europe have demonstrated that more progressive prisons and jails result in dramatically lower rates of recidivism.

We have nothing to lose from implementing something NEW in our broken correctional system, which depends on repeat customers filling our prisons and jails.  It would give the opportunity for the DOC to fulfill its motto of “Manage, Care, Program, Prepare.”

 

A landmark decision on 50th year remembrance of Martin Luther King

Great news!  Yesterday the state Senate voted unanimously for the conference committee

end mass incarceration; MLK legacy; bail reform; felony threshold

Martin Luther King Jr was honored yesterday by the Mass. Statehouse when it passed its Omnibus Bill to reform the commonwealth’s justice and corrections systems. The bill is awaiting action by Gov. Charlie Baker.

version of the criminal justice omnibus bill, and then the House voted for it 148-5.  This is fabulous!  Thank you to everyone who helped make this happen.

The next step is to get Gov. Baker to sign the bill — not send it back with amendments.
Please contact Gov. Baker in whichever of the following ways you prefer, ask him to sign the criminal justice omnibus bill without amendments, and perhaps include 1-2 sentences about why this bill is important to you (either particular provisions you care about, or that it will promote justice and compassion and true public safety, or whatever feels right to you):
+  Call his office at 617-725-4005
+  Use the webform at http://www.mass.gov/governor/constituent-services/contact-governor-office/  (ignore the “old website” warning)
+  Email his Legislative Director Kaitlyn Sprague at Kaitlyn.Sprague@state.ma.us or constituent serivices director Mindy D’Arbeloff at mindy.darbeloff@state.ma.us
+  Tweet @CharlieBakerMA
Also — Passing a bill doesn’t mean we’re done!  Laws matter, but what people are doing matters too.
The Mass Bail Fund and What a Difference a DA Makes campaign are seeking court watchers — people who get some training, commit to going to a courthouse at least three mornings in three months, and collect information that will help hold judges and prosecutors accountable.
No experience is necessary.  Some of the people receiving this email have had altogether too much experience with courtrooms, while for others this is an excellent opportunity to learn and grow personally while helping the movement.  Everyone is welcome!
The Suffolk County training will be this Sunday, April 84-6:30 p.m. at the First Baptist Church (633 Centre Street in Jamaica Plain).  Trainings for Plymouth, Hampton, and Essex Counties are scheduled for April 22May 6, and May 20.  If you live in Middlesex County, which is not one of the counties we’re focusing on, please consider helping out in Suffolk, Essex, or Worcester County.  You don’t have to attend the training in the same county where you do your court watching.
If you have some mornings free and can help in this way, please learn more and register at www.courtwatchma.org .
And may we all help keep alive Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of a world where people have quelled the triple evils of racism, militarism, and excessive materialism, and everyone has justice, peace, and the material and spiritual foundations of a good life.
Lori Kenschaft 

Omnibus Bill Released

The conference committee released the compromises and many reforms to the Massachusetts justice and corrections systems on Friday, March 24. Their fellow state representatives and senators will vote YES or NO, with no opportunity for amendments, and the bill will go to Governor Baker, who has not yet stated his position.  Advocates are hopeful we would have sufficient votes to override a veto, if necessary.

Below are highlights of the comprehensive bill, which are mostly positive steps in the right direction. There are a few glaring contradictions, such as increasing mandatory minimum sentencing for opiate trafficking and  new laws to protect police officers.

For greater details, open this 7-page PDF:CORRECT_Omnibusbill_2018

HIGHLIGHTS of the Conference Committee’s decisions

Decriminalize minor offenses

Divert minor offenses away from prosecution/incarceration

Reform Bail to reduce unnecessary incarceration

Repeal/limit mandatory minimums for non-opiate, non-weight retail drug offenses

Strengthen minimum mandatories for opiate trafficking

Strengthen Protections for Public Safety

Reduce solitary confinement

Generally improve prison conditions

Release prisoners who are permanently incapacitated and pose no safety risk

Make it easier for people to get back on their feet

Take better care of juveniles and young adults

Improve transparency of the criminal justice system

Better protect women in the criminal justice system

Reduce and remedy errors of justice

 

 

NEW INFO: Omnibus Bill may come out of conference committee on Friday, 3/23

​TENTATIVE ACCORD REACHED ON GAME-CHANGING CRIMINAL JUSTICE BILL

By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 21, 2018….The six House and Senate lawmakers negotiating a complex overhaul of the state’s sentencing and criminal justice laws have reached a tentative agreement that is expected to be finalized before the end of the week, according to multiple sources.

The conference committee, led by Sen. William Brownsberger and Rep. Claire Cronin, has been privately negotiating the details of the bill since November.

The competing House and Senate bills (H 4043/S 2200) broadly seek to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to encompass 18-year-olds, repeal some mandatory minimums for drug offenses, address the use of solitary confinement and give judges greater leeway in sentencing street level drug-dealers.

Passage of a criminal justice bill in the coming weeks would mark a major accomplishment for lawmakers before they head into the state budget cycle. The emergence of a final legislative compromise could also make clear possible areas of policy differences between lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker.

House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano, one of the three House conferees, confirmed to the News Service that the group was nearing a final compromise.

“Things are progressing and there is reason to be optimistic that it will be resolved by the end of the week,” the Quincy Democrat said Wednesday.

Several other sources at the State House told the News Service Wednesday that copies of the finalized bill were being circulated among legal counsel for review, and the conference report could be signed by the conferees and filed with the Senate clerk’s office by Friday.

Brownsberger did not return a message left on his cellphone on Wednesday.

Gov. Charlie Baker was in Haverhill on Tuesday with a collection of local law enforcement officials and district prosecutors urging the House and Senate to use the criminal justice bill as a vehicle to tweak the state’s three-year-old fentanyl trafficking law to make it more enforceable by prosecutors.

Criminal justice reform advocates will also be watching closely to see how the Legislature approaches mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses.

Details of the tentative compromise were not immediately available on Wednesday.

Other lawmakers on the conference committee include Rep. Sheila Harrington, a Republican, and Sens. Cynthia Creem and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr.

-END-
03/21/2018


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