For the past three years, Madeleine Baran and the team behind the “In the Dark” podcast have worked to uncover the truth behind the case against Curtis Flowers. Flowers was convicted for the 1996 murders of four people inside the Tardy Furniture store in Winona, Mississippi. He faced six trials and spent 23 years in jail. Through the reporting in the podcast, which poked holes in the story from the prosecution and highlighted the state’s misconduct, Flowers’ case gained national attention.
In June of 2019, Flowers’ case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the conviction based on racial discrimination in jury selection. Now free, Baran sat down with Flowers in October for a final interview. Baran spoke with Quill about the podcast she hosts and the instrumental role it played in Flowers’ case.
Edited excerpts follow.
Where did the “In the Dark” podcast idea come from and what inspired you to investigate Curtis Flowers’ story?
In 2016, American Public Media created a national investigations and documentary unit. Pretty early on, I went for a walk with producer Samara Freemark in the Saint Paul Skyway and mentioned the Jacob Wetterling case. It was strange to me that no one had ever looked into the investigation itself. Samara was really interested, so we decided to do a reporting project on that topic as a podcast. That’s how “In the Dark” started. After Season 1, I got an email from a woman in Mississippi about Curtis Flowers. Right away the fact he had been tried six times jumped out. We wanted to do reporting into powerful people and institutions, so the obvious question there was what was going on with the prosecutor?
Where did your team begin with the investigation?
By reading the trial transcripts. There were six trials, so there was a lot of reading to get a basic understanding of what was happening. Then we created a list of people we knew we wanted to interview. We originally thought that all of the recordings for Season 2 would take one summer, which is absolutely not what happened. We’ve ultimately been working on the story over three years.
A big part of the process for your team was moving to Mississippi. Why was that important?
I don’t see how we could have done the story if we didn’t move there. For one, there was just way too much reporting to be done to ever consider doing it over the phone. The town is a character as well in this story, and the way that people are connected is also important. We’re asking a lot of people to talk to us. Some who had testified under oath were concerned to admit on the record to us that they had lied.
For listeners, there were clearly some surprising findings. What was most surprising for you?
When I went to Indianapolis to find Willie Hemphill, one of the first things he told me was that he was a suspect in the case. I was not expecting he would be that cut and dry. The other surprising thing was the Supreme Court overturning, because that’s extremely unusual for a criminal case like Curtis’s to get the attention. It was a remarkable moment.
How did you handle some of the more tense interviews with individuals such as the prosecutor, Doug Evans?
No matter who you are interviewing, you want to make sure you are clearly listening to what they have to say, and remain open. People can tell if that’s not the case. People are going to be angry, sad, nervous or happy to talk to you. Regardless of how that goes, you need to have the same steady presence during an interview. I don’t like this idea of confrontational interviews. I just don’t understand that. The interview process is exactly the same. Why would anyone talk to you if you show up super aggressive and you’re being a jerk.
What was it like to see this story gaining national attention?
It was really odd, actually. For example, at Curtis’s bail hearing in December, where he got out, there was other media there. We’d never seen other media in Winona. It was good, but it was different. We’ve mostly gotten good feedback. Some of the families of the victims don’t agree with what has happened in the case and courtroom. Several still very much believe that Curtis Flowers is guilty. I think the much bigger reaction from people in the town, especially African Americans in the town, is feeling glad that the story was told.
Do you think your coverage influenced Curtis’s outcome?
I definitely think it did. The Supreme Court cited our reporting — specifically our data reporter Will Craft’s jury analysis. In the bail hearing where Curtis was let go, the defense played actual audio excerpts from the podcast and structured their argument around the findings of our reporting, such as people reversing their statements.
How do you feel about the outcome of your investigation?
When we go in as reporters we’re trying to answer questions. The question here is why was Curtis Flowers tried six times for the same crime? It’s not whether Curtis is innocent or not. We discovered most of the evidence was flawed. We never knew what would happen. As we were reporting, we knew of course our findings were going to impact Curtis’s case, but to the degree it did and how quickly, that we didn’t know.
You also did some reporting on the George Floyd protests in your area. What was that experience like?
We took a break from the coronavirus series to help the Minnesota Public Radio newsroom cover the George Floyd protests. I live in Minneapolis, about one mile from where he was killed. The police were extremely aggressive. One night we were out past curfew, but reporters were allowed to be out, and an officer aimed his weapon at our heads. I don’t remember what he said, but we started running because he clearly wasn’t going to allow us to stay even though I shouted “We’re reporters!” As important as it is for journalists to document problems — doing their jobs—it’s also important not to elevate that above the problems that everyone else is facing. What I experienced was minimal compared to others.
Do you see parallels between your reporting on the failures of the criminal justice system and the fight for racial justice?
What we saw in Curtis Flowers’ case is that the prosecutor violated the Constitution by intentionally striking Black people from the jury because of their race. There are other ways his case was affected by racism. Certain things that happened in Curtis’s case are unfortunately quite normal. Listeners have shared that Season 2 has led them to wonder about the prosecutors and judges where they live and how juries are selected. So much of our criminal justice system is technically public, and yet the way it’s set up we end up not really knowing most of what goes on in courtrooms.
Carlette Spike is a Delaware-based writer and editor with work published in Columbia Journalism Review and New Jersey Monthly among others.
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