WINONA, Miss. (WLBT) - Out of jail, but not free: that’s the reality for Curtis Flowers, who is out on bond but still charged with murder in the deaths of four people at Tardy Furniture in Winona in July of 1996.
Brian Rigby’s mother Carmen was among those who were killed by someone who walked into the store on the morning of July 16. Rigby was 18 at the time.
“My mom was a fantastic mother,” Rigby said in an interview with 3 On Your Side.
Store owner Bertha Tardy, delivery driver Robert Golden, and new hire Bobo Stewart were the other three victims. Stewart was just 16 and was friends with Rigby, who’d gotten him the job.
“My mom had pretty much worked at Tardy Furniture Company all of my life, so I knew Mrs. Bertha," Rigby said. "She was like a second mom to me, so it was even more difficult losing three people -- your mom, your best friend, and somebody you’d known for all your life.”
Rigby has since gotten to know Golden’s family as well, since the tragedy united all four families in a way they never could have imagined.
They were relieved in early 1997 when a suspect was finally arrested. Curtis Flowers, who was 26 at the time, worked briefly at the store until he got reprimanded for damaging some equipment.
Flowers stood trial six times. Two of the trials ended in hung juries, and the other four resulted in convictions that were later overturned due to various forms of prosecutorial misconduct. Each time, the prosecutor was District Attorney Doug Evans.
“When you look at a case that’s been tried six times, it raises questions about the power of prosecutors and whether prosecutors were using or abusing that power," said American Public Media investigative reporter Madeleine Baran, whose work on a podcast called “In the Dark" has affected the trajectory of the case.
Baran and her team, intrigued by the case’s multiple trials and lack of a definitive outcome, spent more than a year in Winona interviewing trial witnesses and anyone else associated with the case. They reported that key pieces of evidence and witness testimony did not hold up to scrutiny and that other possible suspects were not given serious consideration.
She says they did not set out to exonerate Flowers.
“The value that we bring as reporters is that we don’t actually care where the facts lead," Baran said. "We just need to figure out what those facts are. We’re not invested in one outcome or another.”
The outcome, so far, has been significant. In December, a circuit judge in Winona freed Flowers on $250,000 bond and cited information from the podcast as reducing the state’s chances of ever successfully proving he was the killer.
Matt Steffey, a law professor at the Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson, has closely followed the case and sometimes discusses it with his students in class.
“The case against Curtis Flowers has always been exceptionally weak," he said. "They don’t have the murder weapon. They don’t have an eyewitness. They don’t have forensic evidence of any quality that a neutral observer would violate, I don’t think.”
Steffey said the podcast reporters had the luxury of time and other resources to go deeper than attorneys and investigators could.
On January 6, District Attorney Doug Evans filed a voluntary recusal, formally asking to be removed from the case. He further requested that the state Attorney General’s Office take it over. Assuming the judge grants Evans’ request, Steffey says there are a several ways the Attorney General’s Office, led by newly-elected Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch, could respond.
“(She could say), ‘Gee, while we still stand by our work, and while we believe Mr. Flowers is guilty, we believe the case has degraded over time to where we cannot secure a conviction and dismiss the case.’"
Alternatively, Steffey said the A.G. could offer Flowers a deal, whereby he pleads guilty to one or more of the charges in exchange for no more jail time.
“Now that he’s out on bail, and now that he has excellent lawyers backed by deeper pockets than he has ever had, I don’t know how tempting he would find that offer," Steffey said.
Then there is the option of a seventh trial, but whoever presents the case would have to be prepared for the defense to bring up the podcast reporters’ findings, which could weaken their case against Flowers.
Both Steffey and Baran point to the lack of oversight for Mississippi prosecutors as a factor in why the case has been prolonged for so many years.
“There’s no one for whom this is a satisfying outcome," Steffey said. "I think that invites us to look at the way we conduct the criminal justice system and, in particular, leaving these questions up to a single elected official over such a long period of time.”
Some of the victims’ relatives and others in Winona remain convinced that Flowers is guilty and should be punished.
“People on the prosecution side have so much invested in the narrative of Curtis Flowers’ guilt that it would take great discipline to be able to step back and say, if I’d never heard the name Curtis Flowers, does this look like the guilty party? I think the answer to coming to peace with that is not a solution the law can provide for the families of the victims," Steffey said.
Willie Golden, brother of victim Robert Golden, told 3 On Your Side in December that he had long ago put his faith in God to sort things out.
Brian Rigby, who sat through all six trials, wants all four of the victims to be remembered.
“Even though it’s been a long time, these were hard-working people going about their day,” he said. “Four fantastic people lost their lives that day, and four families will forever be affected by it.”
Flowers is living out-of-state and can leave home only for medical treatment, court proceedings, or to meet with his lawyer.
A spokesman for Attorney General Lynn Fitch says she will review all cases pending in her office before deciding how to proceed.