The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Curtis Flowers will finally be freed. Prosecutorial misconduct remains a problem.

Curtis Flowers speaks with reporters as he leaves the Winston-Choctaw Regional Correctional Facility in Louisville, Miss., on Dec. 16, 2019. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Vangela M. Wade is president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit public-interest law firm.

Nearly 23 years. More than 8,000 days. That’s how long Curtis Flowers — a Black man who was tried an astonishing six times for the same crime — was locked away in a cramped jail cell with little ability to see his family. Until Friday, when Mississippi’s attorney general decided to drop the charges, Flowers was waiting to find out whether he would be subjected to yet another trial.

My organization, the Mississippi Center for Justice, has been defending Flowers since summer 2019, working with the team of lawyers that has represented him for many years. We are thrilled that he will finally go free. The accusations against Flowers were never grounded in facts, but rather fueled by improper conduct by Montgomery County District Attorney Doug Evans — the prosecutor in each of Flowers’s six trials.

Unfortunately, the Flowers case offers just a tiny snapshot of prosecutorial misconduct. Such misconduct — which can include introducing false evidence, using dubious informants, withholding evidence that could exonerate the defendant or discriminating in jury selection — puts countless innocent people behind bars. As a former prosecutor — notably, the only Black staff member in the office — I witnessed firsthand the disproportionate number of African Americans entangled within the criminal justice system.

Prosecutors wield enormous control over the criminal justice system. They determine which charges to pursue — if any — and make recommendations on bail, pretrial incarceration and sentencing, which are often accepted by judges. In each of these instances, prosecutors have the potential to abuse civil rights — with few, if any, consequences.

One analysis by the Innocence Project of 660 cases in which courts confirmed prosecutorial misconduct revealed that the prosecutor was ultimately disciplined in only one. Another report of 707 cases of prosecutorial misconduct in California found that just six prosecutors were disciplined.

Consider just a few cases of others in Mississippi who were ultimately exonerated. Jimmie Bass served 18 years due in large part to prosecutors and police withholding evidence helpful to the defense. Cedric Willis served nearly 12 years after the prosecutor persuaded the trial judge to prevent the jury from learning about exculpatory DNA evidence.

Flowers’s experience offers a stark case study in prosecutorial vindictiveness. He was accused of killing four people in a furniture store. In four of six trials, Flowers was found guilty — but later had the decisions overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct. The other two trials ended in hung juries.

First, through each trial, Evans used peremptory strikes — which allow lawyers to keep jurors from being seated without giving a reason — in what the Supreme Court eventually called a “relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of Black individuals.” In each of the trials where Flowers was convicted, the jury included no more than one Black member.

Second, Evans relied heavily on a career criminal and jailhouse informant named Odell Hallmon to testify against Flowers in four of the six trials — and rewarded Hallmon handsomely for his efforts. Evans agreed to bail for Hallmon — despite his violent criminal record and arrest for attempting to run over a police officer. While out on bond, Hallmon murdered three people.

Finally, Evans’s investigators pressured potential witnesses to shape their testimony to implicate Flowers. Police were sent to retrieve witnesses and drive them to the police station as though they were suspects themselves.

Such misconduct cannot be allowed to continue. Prosecutors are often incentivized to secure the most prosecutions with the toughest sentences, in part because they face the potential for public outrage if they mistakenly put a guilty person back on the streets but few consequences for locking up an innocent person.

Better data is also imperative. Federal officials should conduct a national study on the relationship between prosecutorial discretion and racial inequities in the criminal justice system, as recommended in a June report of the Mississippi Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Moving forward, as the report also suggests, prosecutors receiving federal funding should be required to report data on the number of defendants prosecuted, the charges and demographic information on the defendants such as race, sex and age.

Furthermore, it’s important to remember that ordinary people have power over prosecutors. Prosecutors are often selected through elections. Before heading to the polls, voters must know whether prosecutors are on the ballot — and have information on the candidates’ records. Prosecutors also often run unopposed. Challengers would force incumbent prosecutors to be more accountable.

Curtis Flowers spent more than two decades behind bars due to prosecutorial misconduct. No one else should have to suffer as he did.

Read more:

Rachel Cicurel: Don’t stop with the police: Check racism in the prosecutor’s office

Radley Balko: There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal justice system is racist. Here’s the proof.

The Post’s View: In denying Curtis Flowers a fair trial, Mississippi eroded the justice system’s credibility

Radley Balko: White people can compartmentalize police brutality. Black people don’t have the luxury.

Radley Balko: The no-knock warrant for Breonna Taylor was illegal