The New York Times recently published an op-ed by David Leonhardt about the case of Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi man who was sentenced to death in 2010 after being tried six separate times for the same crime. In 1996, four employees of a furniture store were fatally shot. Flowers, a former store employee, was charged with—and ultimately convicted of—the crime, even though no physical evidence connected him to it, nor were there any witnesses who placed him at the store that day.
Leonhardt’s op-ed is less about the details of Flowers’ case and more about “the crisis of unjust imprisonment” in our country and the factors that led to Flowers’ conviction. “The crisis,” Leonhardt writes, “has been caused partly by powerful, unaccountable prosecutors, like Doug Evans [the prosecutor in Flowers’ case]. And the costs are borne overwhelmingly by black men, like Flowers.”
Here are some facts to illustrate the “unjust imprisonment crisis” which Leonhardt describes: 2.2 million people are presently incarcerated in the nation’s prisons or jails, 67% of whom are people of color. Leonhardt maintains that dozens of innocent people have been executed in the past two decades. Countless individuals, like Flowers, are incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. According to legal scholar Michelle Alexander, a larger percentage of black Americans are incarcerated today than black South Africans were at the height of apartheid. Today’s “crisis of unjust imprisonment” is, as Michelle Alexander has termed it, “a human rights nightmare.”
“Crisis of unjust imprisonment is a human rights nightmare.”
According to Leonhardt, while President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are attempting to worsen the problem by incarcerating even more people, today’s movement for criminal justice reform has only been gaining momentum. Leonhardt points out that, unfortunately for Trump and Sessions, criminal justice reform occurs mostly at the state and local levels.
Leonhardt cites the example of manufactured jailhouse confessions—a common component to wrongful convictions and one that was central to the Flowers case. All too often, prosecutors and police entice jailhouse informants to lie about what other inmates say in exchange for benefits. In response, Texas passed a law last year that requires the tracking of jailhouse informants and the disclosure of plea deals to defense attorneys, so they can then question the testimony in front of a jury. Rebecca Brown, Innocence Project’s director of policy, told Leonhardt that the Texas law is “excellent” and that the Illinois legislature recently passed an even better version, pending the governor’s signature.
“If the Flowers family won’t give in to despair; nobody else should, either.”
As evidenced above, there has been some progress in the criminal justice realm. However, Leonhardt reminds readers we mustn’t forget that “thousands upon thousands of American citizens sit behind bars, unjustly denied their freedom.” While his sixth conviction is being appealed, Flowers and his family are not giving up hope. “If the Flowers family won’t give in to despair;” Leonhardt concludes, “nobody else should, either.”