In the dark: Racial Bias in the case of curtis flowers

Season two of In the Dark focuses on the case of Curtis Flowers, a black man who was accused of murdering four people in a Mississippi furniture store in 1996. In the opening episode of this podcast, the audience learns that in the years following the accusations made against him, Curtis Flowers had been sent to trial six times for the same crime, by the same District Attorney, Doug Evans. The first three trials were overruled by the Mississippi Supreme Court and in the 4th and 5th trials, the jury was declared “a hung jury”, meaning the jury could not reach a verdict. The sixth and final trial, however, resulted in the conviction of Curtis Flowers for the four murders that took place in Tardy Furniture.

Throughout the eleven-episode season, Madeleine Baran- the narrator and investigator of this case- seeks to reach the audience by uncovering the racial tensions in the town where the murders took place: Winona, Mississippi; demonstrating the emotional burden the Flowers’ family faces due to Curtis Flowers’ conviction with family interviews, and highlighting the conflicts of racial bias in the jury from every single trial that took place, along with the dubious tactics perpetrated by the prosecution, themselves.

photo credit: APM Reports

One episode from this season that shows how Baran attempts to uncover the racial tensions in the town of Winona, is Episode 8: The D.A. In this episode, Madeleine discusses the history of the town with a brief overview of racially motivated events that occurred around the area and interviews citizens who share personal anecdotes of the ways in which racism was induced throughout the town. Baran begins the episode by talking about a Civil Rights Movement march that made its way through the city of Grenada, a city that is a few minutes from Winona, where race hatred was notorious. These marchers would elicit negative responses from white people such as arming themselves with rocks and bottles to throw at the marchers. On a more unsettling note, according to Baran, the local police usually arrested black marchers rather than the white people that attacked them. This, along with the interviews of African American Winona citizens, Baran emphasizes that around this area, white people usually antagonized black people through racially motivated means. One interview that specifically highlights that there might have been, in fact, racial bias in the city of Winona, is the interview with Clyde Simmons- a former police officer in Winona. In his interview, Clyde Simmons mentions that he realized black officers did not have the same authority as the white officers because, black officers “could not arrest whites”. Through this statement, one could argue that in Winona, racial discrimination was not only perpetrated through citizens but through the justice system as well, since African American officers were instructed not to arrest white civilians. 

Another person who discusses a time she experienced racism, is Diana Foster, a citizen from Winona. In her interview, Foster mentions that in 1966, when schools were being de-segregated she along with other black students, experienced racism at the hands of white adults. In her story, she talks about how she was 15 at the time, in other words a child, and that they were at a school that was formerly an all-white school. After they were dismissed for the day, Foster mentions that a white mob of adults were insulting the black children and that the children, as a result, were terrified. Foster also adds that the principal would not let them back into the school, so they had to go through the mob which in turn, attacked the children while the teachers did absolutely nothing about it. The inclusion of this devastating story, to say the least, serves by raising awareness in regards to the racism that African Americans have experienced throughout the years in a city that is notorious for such events. With this, Baran is, therefore, able to raise valid concerns for the events that transpire in Curtis Flowers’ case because it allows the audience to question whether these accusations made towards him were racially motivated or not.

The podcast also sets the emotional tone by using interviews and audio recordings of interviews with the families. The audience is made very aware of how the loss of their family members and friends has impacted their everyday life. An episode that stands out in particular for the use of pathos appeals is Episode 6: Punishment, where several members of Curtis Flowers’ family are interviewed about their feelings towards the entire situation. This heart wrenching episode highlights how Curtis Flowers’ family remain optimistic about Curtis’ fate, while still grieving his absence because he has been away from their home for a very long time. For example, when Crystal Flowers- the daughter of Curtis Flowers- is interviewed, the narrator of this story Madeleine Baran shares that was only 3 years old at the time of Curtis’ arrest. In the present day of the podcast, Crystal is now 24. In the interview, Crystal also states, “When they open the gates, I want to be there.” This interview alone depicts how much the family has stayed in contact with Curtis, since his once 3-year-old daughter, now 24, awaits her father’s release despite him being imprisoned for so many years, which allows the audience to see this emotional bond that was able to develop even though prison has been this huge obstacle keeping Curtis away from his family. From there, one can sympathize with Crystal for not being able to see her for such a long time and hope the best for her and her family.​​

Curtis’ father, Archie Flowers, is also interviewed by Madeleine Baran. In his interview in this episode, the audience can hear Archie Flowers choking up when talking about his son’s absence. He even mentions that “it’s hard to talk about it”, when Baran asks him about how he feels in terms of Curtis. In addition to this, a heartbreaking comment that Baran makes about Archie and Curtis is that they both loved to sing Gospel in church and since Curtis is in jail, they still sang to each other over the phone while Archie visited him in prison.

These family interviews, along with the rest included in the episode, show the audience how much the case of Curtis Flowers, their own family member, has weighed in on their lives to a very emotional extent.

Furthermore, In the Dark focuses on the logistical components of racial biases and corruption when addressing the events of Flowers’s case as well. The podcast focuses heavily on D.A. Doug Evans, and how his racial biases impacted the progression and conviction of Curtis Flowers. The amount of evidence that points to the D. A’s prominent racism and the idea that the six trials for Mr. Flowers were heavily seeded in racism and bias.  In the Dark uses the following statistics to make a logical argument that Doug Evans chose to make Flowers’s case and conviction be based on race.

A.)   While running for the DA office, Evans spoke to the Council of Conservative Citizens- whose statement is to “oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind”.

B.)    Doug Evan’s office struck black people from a jury at almost 4.5x it struck white people. (50% of eligible black jurors compared to 11% of eligible whites)

C.)    225 out of 418 cases of Fifth Circuit Court District were only 40% black.

D.)   Race of jurors was tracked.

E.)    Jurors who knew individuals involved in the case were still allowed to be on the jury.

F.)    At the 6th trial, 11 jurors were white and 1 was black.

Another reason that In the Dark is such an intriguing podcast is because of the amount of effort placed in the gathering of information on the case by the investigators and the podcasts’ production team. The crew of the show is made up of a team of reporters from APM Reports who have investigated and gathered tons of information from many different sources such as case files, interviews with people working on the case and citizens of Winona, etc. Throughout the series it is easy to see just how much effort the team put into fact checking details and tracking down people involved, even in the slightest form, in the Curtis Flowers case. They poured through endless research, looking at evidence from different angles, giving a lot more detail than in some documentary films and television series. Besides just good reporting, another reason that this amount of detail is so effective is because of the lack of visuals for the audience. There are no images, cinematography, or even non-verbal cues for the audience to see and evaluate visually which would make it difficult to keep up with the overwhelmingly long story if it was not for the amount of information provided through narration. Madeleine Baran does a wonderful job of reporting through what feels at some points like storytelling. She makes sure to set the scene, providing tone through music while describing settings in heavy detail and painting an image in the audience’s head of each character by describing their body language and personality.

Baran also provides background information that builds up the portrayal of certain characters and their relationships with one another, a good example of this being that of Randy Stewart, the father of one of the murder victims, and how she gives him the time and attention to show the audience the strength of their relationship while at the same time providing the audience with insight into why he insists on the conviction of Curtis Flowers. The series uses this same system of a sort of character witness many times throughout its episodes, especially when it comes to Flowers and the relationships that he holds with different friends, family, and other members of the community. They even provide interviews from childhood friends, people he has not even seen in years, in order to give us some context into what he was like and how he lived.

Besides heavy detail, another big difference between this podcast series and other documentaries is the way that the series is structured. One really interesting choice that the series producers made was spending a whole episode on different pieces of evidence, holding up the claims to the light or underneath a microscope, picking it apart in order to understand what exactly was going on. A lot of the evidence in the case against Flowers is debunked or shown as being faulty and biased against him through their investigative reporting, and they provide all of the evidence for their own findings. This structure is helpful in keeping the information organized in listeners minds so that it is easier to keep up with such a convoluted case. Without images to imprint in listeners memories, it would be difficult to remember exactly what takes place and when or how unlike documentary films or TV series that can use camera shots and visual graphs to display and tell the story. Instead, the episodes are organized and titled in a way that listeners can keep track of what is going on, knowing that one episode is covering one topic like The Gun, and another is covering The Trials of Curtis Flowers. Each episode ultimately weaves the story together in a memorable way for the audience.

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