Winona, a town of slightly more than 5,000 people, sits right in the center of the northern part of Mississippi. It is known as the “Crossroads of North Mississippi” located in Montgomery County.
The town reflects what award-winning author Jesmyn Ward described in a 2018 edition of The Atlantic as “racism [that] is built into the very bones’ of Mississippi.” This was evidenced by the arrest and beating of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer in April 1963 after she dared to sit at a “whites only” food counter in the local Greyhound bus station.
Montgomery County District Attorney Doug Evans personifies the racist bones of Winona, Mississippi.
First elected as district attorney in 1992, and most recently reelected after an unopposed election in March 2019, Evans has waged more than a two-decade racist fight to keep black people from serving on juries in the county.
Career as Racist District Attorney
A recent class action lawsuit filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the MacArthur Justice Center on behalf of four Montgomery County residents charged that throughout Evans’ tenure as district attorney “he and his assistants have employed a policy, custom, or use of discriminatorily striking black jurors with peremptory challenges.”
The lawsuit further charged that Evans’ dark personal history of racism preceded his election as district attorney through his personal affiliation with well-known white supremacist groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens.
Against this individual and community racist backdrop, the horrific crimes that occurred in the Tardy Furniture Store in downtown Winona in July 1996 have assumed national and international importance.
Murders Bring Spotlight on DA Doug Evans
Four people were found murdered in the store on Saturday, the 16th of July. Several months later 26-yar-old Curtis Flowers was arrested for those murders. The evidence of Flowers involvement in the crime was shabby at best.
That did not deter D.A. Evans.
Between 1997 and 2010, the racist district attorney prosecuted and convicted Curtis Flowers six times, securing the death sentence against Flowers four times in those prosecutions. The prosecutions were conducted before all-white or predominantly white jurors because the district attorney intentionally, methodically and discriminatorily engaged in pattern of excluding African Americans from jury participation in the case. Each of the six convictions were overturned by either Mississippi or federal courts because Evans engaged in gross prosecutorial misconduct or because of his deliberate racist patterns of excluding African Americans from jury duty in the case.
Defendant’s Sixth Conviction Overturned
On June 21, 2019, Flowers’ sixth conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision in which the majority opinion was written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In that decision, Justice Kavanaugh made this observation about Evans’ conduct in the Flowers case:
“The State’s relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals strongly suggests that the state wanted to try Flowers before a jury with as few black jurors as possible, and ideally before an all-white jury.”
In a December 8, 2019 Law360 piece titled “Scot Free: What Happens When Prosecutors Behave Badly,” Cara Bayles pointed out that Evans has “engaged in a slew of misconduct for 22 years” in the Flowers case without incurring the slightest professional accountability.
Massive, Well-Documented Prosecutorial Misconduct
In a September 18, 2019 piece in APM Reports, Parker Yesko discussed at length the lack of professional accountability for Evans’ massive, well-documented prosecutorial misconduct in the Flowers case.
Yesko discussed this issue with Adam Kilgore, the general counsel for the Mississippi Bar. Yesko stated that a prosecutor who engages in intentional and unconstitutional discrimination in the jury selection process in a criminal case would not necessarily be subject to disciplinary action by the Bar. Yesko quoted Kilgore as saying:
“There is not an automatic trigger mechanism along that line. I think the only automatic triggers out there would probably exist along the lines of if a lawyer is convicted of a felony. I would take a look at it and look at the rules of professional conduct and see if there was possible proof of an ethics violation.”
State Bar Disciplinary Rules Inadequate and Antiquated
Kilgore added that the only real corrective measure for this type of prosecutorial misconduct is the possible reversal of a conviction obtained as a result of the misconduct.
Former U.S. Attorney Thomas Sullivan, however, informed Yesko that,
“Most of these cases that involve misconduct don’t get reversed because the evidence of guilt is strong. And if that’s your test—whether the evidence is guilt is strong, so the prosecutor can do anything he wants—you’re throwing the constitution out the window.”
81 Pages of Documented Prosecutorial Misconduct
In a February 28, 2019 Petition for Post-Conviction Relief, attorneys for Flowers were in fact forced to use 81 pages of their 327-page petition to outline the prosecutorial misconduct engaged in by D.A. Evans: suppression of exculpatory evidence, knowing use of false testimony/evidence, and suppression of impeachment evidence designed to keep an innocent person under a criminal conviction and sentence of death.
Apparently in Mississippi, where, like many of southern states, racism is “built in the bones” of the state, there is no professional accountability for a racist, unethical and thoroughly corrupt prosecutor like Doug Evans.
Voters Encourage Prosecutorial Misconduct
The voters of Montgomery County have overwhelmingly has returned Evans to office nine times and in only one of those election he did he have an opponent.
And, as Yesko discovered, the Mississippi Bar does not have any rules of ethical procedure to hold him accountable for what is nothing short of lawless and criminal conduct. In fact, the Mississippi Bar fosters—in some cases, encourages—corrupt, rogue prosecutors like Doug Evans. Yesko explained:
“[Thomas] Sullivan said lots of people are in a position to flag prosecutorial misconduct – the assistant prosecutors, defense attorneys, lower court judges and appeal court judges – basically anyone who is in the courtroom or reviews a case. According to the [Modern Rules of Professional Conduct], they’re all required to report concerns about another lawyer’s ‘honesty, trustworthiness or fitness’ and they easily could.
Powerful Disincentives to Report Misconduct
“But there are often powerful disincentives to file complaints against a district attorney. Judges and lawyers may not report them out of a fear of retribution. For criminal defense attorneys, antagonizing the local prosecutor could lead to worse outcomes for their clients.
“‘There are various places where the tripwires should kick in,’ Sullivan said. ‘There’s a whole raft of organizations and people who are not doing their jobs to bring these people to account.’
“Since lawyers usually don’t file complaints, it’s mostly their perturbed clients who do. And since prosecutors don’t have clients in the traditional sense – they represent ‘the people’ – this backstop fails.
Disciplinary Procedures Inadequate to Punish Misconduct
“For a layperson, the process of filing a bar complaint can also be confusing. In Mississippi, the bar association doesn’t post the complaint form online. It must be requested by phone or email. Of complaints filed last year, 83 percent were dismissed without any investigation.
“Bar complaints that don’t result in discipline are kept confidential and destroyed after 18 months. Complaints that do result in more serious types of discipline – private reprimand, public reprimand, suspension or disbarment – are published only in Mississippi Lawyer, a small-circulation trade magazine with no website. Private reprimands are mentioned without naming the lawyer involved. The Mississippi Bar doesn’t keep a searchable, online database.”
Professional accountability is the casualty in this process.
That brings us back to Curtis Flowers.
Curtis Flowers Released on Bond After 23 Years in Prison
On December 16, 2016, Flowers was released on a $250,000 bond, having spent 23 years in prison for a crime that he most probably did not commit.
Six days into the New Year D.A. Evans announced he will no longer handle the prosecution in the Flowers case, leaving open the prospect that his office will nonetheless try the case a seventh time.
Chances are the district attorney’s office will opt for a seventh prosecution of Curtis Flowers – and there remains the potential that the office will continue to engage in the same pattern of prosecutorial misconduct and racial discrimination it has exhibited in the Flowers case for more than two decades. Until new leadership is elected and cleans house, prosecutorial misconduct in the Montgomery County, Mississippi, District Attorney’s Office will reign supreme and the institutional racism that has formed the bedrock of the prosecutions for decades will continue to deprive black and brown defendants of a fair trial.