podcasts

In the Dark’s Madeleine Baran on the Curtis Flowers Investigation

In the Dark, the investigative podcast by APM Reports, published the final episode of its excellent second season on Tuesday. In its sophomore effort, Peabody-winning reporter Madeleine Baran and her team examined the troubling case of Curtis Flowers, a black man accused of murdering four people in Mississippi two decades ago, who has since been tried an astonishing six times — and, more astonishingly, all six times by the same white prosecutor, District Attorney Doug Evans.

Over the course of ten episodes, Baran & Co. paint a picture of a nightmarish justice system infected with severe potential for abuse of power. Their reporting systematically lays out the myriad ways in which the prosecution’s case against Flowers didn’t quite hold up, or seemed outright manufactured. It also produced new information that may be pertinent to future considerations of the case, like how the prosecution’s sole piece of direct evidence — the testimony of a jailhouse informant named Odell Hallmon — turned out to be a lie, and how an alternate suspect named Willie James Hemphill was never directly put forth in any of the six trials.

The season is over, but the case lives on. Flowers, who is currently on death row, has two efforts in the works to prevent his execution: one is a direct appeal of his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court, the other a request for post-conviction relief with the Mississippi Supreme Court. However, even if his conviction is overturned, Evans could choose to order a seventh trial. Shortly after the publication of the season’s final episode, Baran spoke with Vulture about what comes next for Flowers and his appeals, what his case says about the American justice system, and the massive amount of reporting that goes into In the Dark.

Congratulations on wrapping the season. How do you feel?
Well, we’ve been working on it since late last night, so I don’t really know how it feels. It’s been such a long reporting project, and it’s definitely the most difficult story I’ve ever reported, and it’s been done for just, like, 12 hours.

You’re still going to track the case, right?
Yeah, we’re going to keep covering the big developments — if there are major updates in the appeals process, or if Curtis gets out of prison. The season is over, but the case of Curtis Flowers definitely isn’t, so we feel a responsibility to continue to cover it. Especially now that so many people want to know what happens.

What immediately comes next for Flowers?
So, there’s his direct appeal of the conviction from the sixth trial, and that is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s on the really narrow question about jury selection and racial discrimination in jury selection. So that would be most likely be taken up — or not — by the court in the fall. It is, of course, not known whether the court will even consider it.

The other process that’s happening is his post-conviction petition, and that is more active right now. That’s the petition where you can bring in new evidence, and that process can take a very long time. Right now, the post-conviction is before the Mississippi Supreme Court, and we could be talking about years here.

It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. Presuming the petition gets back to the original Circuit Court, what will the judge there decide? That judge is expected to be Judge [Joseph] Loper [who presided over the fifth trial], and so Judge Loper will most likely get an opportunity to decide whether to overturn Curtis’s conviction based on this new information.

And then we’ll be able to see what happens from there, but a lot of this information was not known at the time of the sixth trial. If you think about the jurors in the sixth trial, they heard testimony from Odell Hallmon, who got on the stand and told the jury that Curtis confessed to him. He now says that’s a lie. And the jurors didn’t even hear about Willie James Hemphill. So if there is another trial, things will not be the same.

When did you actually start reporting on this case?
We got an email with the tip about the story from this woman who lived in the area back in February 2017, I believe. At that point, we were looking for new story ideas for season two, and this tip was one of hundreds of thousands of emails and phone calls we received. It was very short. A lot of emails we got were very lengthy with lots of information, and this email was one of the shortest ones.

We spent about a month reporting on that story, along with a couple of others, just to see where it would go and whether it was worth pursuing. I think it was around April when we decided that was the story we wanted to pursue for season two. We had already done a lot of reporting by that point, but that was when we start investigating full-time as a team.

The initial writing process only started around January, and it picked up more intensely within the last three months. With investigative reporting, you have no idea where this is going to go, so you can’t just start writing in the first month. We had to wait until we could see certain things take shape.

When we start releasing the episodes, our thinking is that we’re done reporting — we’re confident in the findings, and we don’t have additional reporting to do. With Hemphill, that was a fluke. We did not expect to locate him like that. So that was one major difference, when he just showed up on a jail roster right in the middle of production.

You mentioned that the tip was pretty short compared to the other messages. What about the case compelled you to pursue it?
It was the six trials. I’ve gotten so many tips as a reporter that seems really intriguing at first, and then you Google around to find that it’s not even true. I originally had this feeling that was what was going to happen with this tip, but when I looked it up, I was like, “Oh, he really has been tried six times,” and then I started asking, “What is going on here?”

Six times by the same guy.
Right, that got our attention more than anything else. We don’t see our podcast as a whodunit — we’re not telling detective stories, or something like that — we look at powerful people who are misusing their power. That’s at the heart of investigative journalism. And so, the six trials immediately raised the question of whether something was seriously going wrong here. From there, we learned more about the case, read the trial transcripts, started looking at the evidence.

I think people have this idea that when you’re convicted, and then win your appeal, that you then get out of prison. What this case shows is that, no, that’s not necessarily what happens, because that’s not what happened to Curtis. This happened to him three times, and he’s had two mistrials, and his sixth conviction is under appeal right now. It just keeps going.

There are so many points in the season where the surreality of the justice system just keeps hitting us over and over again. Like when you interviewed Oliver Diaz, the former presiding justice for the Mississippi Supreme Court, and he said that the Flowers case is an example of the court system working the way it should even though the man is literally still sitting in prison. How do you work through stuff like that?
Just by reporting on it factually. The mere facts of this case alone do the job. We want to make sure that we’re pointing out the Groundhog Day quality to this case, and what was helpful about the Oliver Diaz interview was how it let you really see that. Here’s somebody who thinks that Curtis deserves a new trial — he was actually part of the process of making that happen, and has very interesting things to say about that. But as you pointed out, on the question of whether or not the system works, he actually ends up using it as an example of the system working.

I think what this case shows is how powerful prosecutors are. The system we’ve set up has given prosecutors tremendous discretion. There’s reasons for that, and it’s not the case that all prosecutors abuse their discretion. Far from it. It’s also not the case that we want prosecutors to have no discretion. You can understand why prosecutors do have discretion, but you can also see what happens when prosecutors use that in certain ways. In the case of Curtis Flowers, there are very few people in this story with the ability to be more powerful than the prosecutor. I mean, perhaps the governor could pardon Flowers, or people could vote in a different prosecutor, but practically speaking, [District Attorney] Doug Evans is the most powerful person in the story.

Aside from prosecutorial power, what were the biggest things you learned about the justice system from this case?
I would say a couple of things. First of all, I had not done any real looking into ballistics before, so the fact that it basically comes down to eyeballing it when you’re trying to determine whether a bullet matches a gun was a surprise to me. The lack of data on race in jury selection was also interesting to me — the fact that it’s not tracked systematically in any way across the United States, or even on the individual judicial district level. And then, there are other things that confirm a lot that will be familiar to many investigation reporters: that when there’s no accountability or transparency, awful things can happen.

What comes next for you? Are you guys taking a couple of weeks off, or are you already looking for the next case?
We’re taking a couple of weeks off. Five people were working on this full-time — or six, counting the data reporter who spent most of the past year on this — so everybody needs a break from it to clear their heads so we can dive back in.

We’re going to continue to cover the case, but at a certain point we’re also going to start looking into season three, which is something we haven’t thought at all about because this case really pushed us up to the very last deadline. We don’t have a new story picked out yet, but when we get into whatever we end up reporting on and go dark for awhile, I trust our listeners will be patient with us. There’s no way around how long this process takes.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

In the Dark’s Madeleine Baran on the Curtis Flowers Case