All serious criminal cases deserve podcast-style scrutiny
By Elizabeth Vartkessian
Jul 11, 2018 | 3:25 PM
Maryland's second highest court has upheld a judge's ruling overturning the murder conviction of Adnan Syed. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Listening to the true crime podcast In the Dark, produced by American Public Media, has been a frustrating experience. Season two, which has been downloaded more than 12 million times, focuses on the case of Curtis Flowers, an inmate on Mississippi’s death row who has maintained his innocence for the last 22 years. What frustrates me is not the podcast itself, which is meticulously reported. It is not even the series of revelations of the ways in which Mr. Flowers’ case was mishandled. What frustrates me is that the widespread attention Mr. Flowers’ experience has received is an aberration. In fact, the most unusual thing about his case is that it has actually received the type of investigation that is theoretically guaranteed to every person facing capital charges.
Mr. Flowers, who is African American, was convicted for the murders of four furniture store employees — three white and one black — in Winona, Miss. Since then, he has been engaged in a life-and-death struggle with elected District Attorney Doug Evans, who is also white. Over the course of the season, In the Dark producer Madeleine Baran and her team demonstrate that his conviction was built on shaky evidence, unreliable testimony and bad faith.
Mr. Flowers’ case is heartbreaking for all involved, but some version of each error made and each pernicious step taken by an overzealous and misguided prosecution can be found in nearly every case I have worked on as a mitigation investigator and doubtless in scores of others.
High-quality investigation begins by casting a wide net to see where leads emerge. It requires spending hundreds of hours digging through archived records in courthouses and warehouses. It cannot be adequately done without a no-stone-unturned approach.
In the Dark is a strong example of such investigation. Ms. Baran and her team relocated to Mississippi in order to properly investigate Mr. Flowers’ case. They untangled a web of prosecutorial and police misconduct, demonstrated the systematic removal of African Americans from juries, and built rapport and trust with members of Mr. Flowers’ community and with the state’s star witness, Odell Hallman — all to obtain the most credible and accurate information. A half a dozen people dedicated themselves to a full year of on-the-ground work.
Yet this is not provided in the majority of criminal cases, even those that can result in a death sentence. In the absence of a criminal justice system dedicated to uncovering the truth behind crimes such as this, we have seen a patchwork of efforts attempt to fill the gap. Podcasts like In the Dark and Serial — the first season of which led to a judge ordering a new trial in Baltimore for its subject, Adnan Syed — may be the most recent and notable iterations, but they are not the first and likely not the last. Nonprofits like the Innocence Project and its affiliates or law firms stepping in to take cases pro bono are two common examples, and their efforts frequently make a difference for those they represent. But we cannot mistake the patches for the safety net itself. When serious questions like those in Mr. Flowers’ case are raised it usually happens not because of the system in place, but in spite of it. It happens because of remarkable effort that should not be remarkable at all.
Working as a mitigation investigator for the last 14 years, I have seen all of the injustices that have befallen Mr. Flowers destroy countless lives. Four years ago, I founded a non-profit organization in Baltimore that provides investigation for people facing severe punishments like the death penalty. In most instances, we have been challenged by inadequate budgets and insufficient time to conduct the work needed.
Last year one of our clients was executed in Texas. He did not have the benefit of a yearlong investigation to figure out what had actually taken place in his case. He had been charged as a result of a questionable investigation and had been represented by ineffectual trial attorneys. At the time of his execution, he had viable defenses that had not been fully explored. He died despite the fact that he was legally entitled, just like Mr. Flowers, to an investigation that pursued every lead, examined every piece of evidence and turned over every stone.
Mr. Flowers has been dealt a regrettable set of circumstances until now. He is finally experiencing the good fortune of a proper investigation, but luck should have nothing to do with justice. I only hope that courts will right the wrongs of previous decades and will do the same for the hundreds whose stories may never be told to millions but who deserve no less.
Elizabeth Vartkessian (email@example.com) is the executive director of Advancing Real Change, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that conducts life history investigations in capital and juvenile defense cases.